Beijing has successfully sent the core module of a space station to low Earth orbit, marking the beginning of an ambitious mission to build China’s first space station by the end of 2022.
The core module, named Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), was carried by a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket, nicknamed the Big Rocket or the Fat 5, from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island of Hainan.
Tianhe will be the centrepiece of the Chinese space station, named Tianggong, or Heavenly Palace. The 18-metre-module is the first component to launch, and will be joined later by two lab capsules to form a T-shaped space station.
The core module is envisioned as the command centre of the entire space station, as well as the astronauts’ main living space. The habitable space inside the core module amounts to about 50 cubic metres. When the two lab capsules are in place, the total living space in the complex will reach 110 cubic metres.
Upon compltion, the size of the Tianggong space station will be only about 25% that of the International Space Station (ISS). While the ISS routinely accommodates six or seven astronauts at a time, China’s Tianggong is expected to host three crew members.
China has scheduled a toal of 11 launches in 2021 to 2022 in order to complete the Tianggong space station. That includes four crewed missions, four cargo spacecraft flights, and an additional two module launches.
Once the station is up and running, Tianggong will feature 14 internal experiment racks and more than 50 external docking points for instruments designed to gather data in the space environment, Scientific American reported recently.
Crew members will carry out around 100 experiments onboard the space station, including nine international projects. Notably, none of these will include the United States, due to the fact that U.S law strictly prohibits NASA scientists from directly cooperating with China. This, in effect, also blocks China from participating in the ISS programme.
Despite the political strife between China and the U.S, China’s space ambitions are definitely taking off. Will this be the start of the 21st century space race?