China successfully launches first section of its all-new space station

China successfully launched the first section of its new space station on April 29, 2021, formally embarking on the buildup of one of humanity’s largest and most sophisticated space-based facilities.

The remarkable feat by the Asian superpower comes just 60 years after the USSR cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space in his Vostok 1 spacecraft, successfully orbiting Earth and returning to the planet safely.

Operational readiness

China’s most ambitious space endeavour to date, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) confirmed that the indigenously designed and engineered multi-module space station, named Tiangong (Heavenly Palace), will be fully operational by Q4 2022.

Featuring a core module connected to two space laboratories, the space station is designed to function for about 15 years and is to be pieced together entirely in orbit.

The station’s core module, named Tianhe (Harmony of Heavens), is 16.6 metres long and has a diameter of 4.2 metres.

The core module comprises a connecting section, a life-support and control section and a resources section.

space station
Artist’s rendering of the 70-ton Chinese space station that will occupy LEO and will have a lifespan of about 15 years. Credit: CMS

The Tianhe module will be central to the space station’s future operations, as both Chinese and other countries’ astronauts will live and work onboard, to host scientific experiments and other missions in the interest of China in particular and humanity in general.

The core section that launched into space on April 29 weighs 15 ordinary-sized sedan cars combined.

The combined weight of the Tiangong space station will be nearly 70 tons when fully complete.

A Long March 5B heavy-lift launch vehicle blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in China’s Hainan province at 11:23am (local time) on April 29, its 10 engines generating a thrust power of 1,068 metric tons to lift the 18-storey-tall carrier rocket into space.

LEO deployment

The launch vehicle carried the 22.5-ton core module of the Chinese space station – the biggest and heaviest space-based asset that China has ever constructed – to a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) some 400km above Earth

The Chinese space station will occupy LEO throughout its lifetime, beginning with its space-build stage.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), speaking on behalf of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, the State Council and the CMC, congratulated all the team members who participated in the successful launch of the core module of the massive new Chinese space station.

Xi said the successful launch of the core module confirms that China’s space station construction has entered the full implementation stage, and lays a solid foundation for the follow-up programme.

space station
The Long March 5B is the only rocket in China capable of launching and carrying into LEO the Tiangong space station’s heavy modules. Credit: CNSA

Build start of the Tiangong space station marks the beginning of the third stage of China’s manned space programme, which began in 1992.

The programme’s first two stages comprised six manned spaceflights and two experimental spacelab missions.

In late 2021 and in 2022, two manned missions, comprising Shenzhou XII and XIII mission astronauts, and two autonomous cargo ships, will prepare and dock the April 29 launched core module with subsequent sections of the station, including its two space labs.

Docking station

When fully complete, the Tiangong space station – like the International Space Station (ISS) – will be capable of docking with multiple crewed and unmanned cargo spaceships at the same time.

The ISS is currently the only permanently orbit space lab.

It is a project that only involves the United, States, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe.

More than 200 astronauts and cosmonauts from 19 countries – including the UAE and Saudi Arabia – have lived and worked on the ISS.

Since 2011, the US Congress excluded the Chinese space programme from the ISS mission, citing national security risks

The ISS mission is due to end after 2024, potentially leaving the China as the only power with a fully-functioning space station.

The Tiangong space station will be able to link with other countries’ space vessels, so long as they have a Tiangong space station-compatible docking hatch.

Three Chinese astronauts will live and work on the Tiangong space station for several months.

The station will be able to accommodate up to six astronauts at any given time.

The station’s hardware assets will also include an optical telescope.

space station
The Tiangong space station is expected to be operational by Q4 2022, and capable of accommodating 6 astronauts onboard. Credits: NASA/CMA

Hao Chun, Director of China Manned Space (CMS), said his agency will ensure that the space station advances space science, technology and application.

He said scientists will be able to use the facility’s unique space-based environment to perform mutation breeding, produce special medicines and create new materials.

Chun also said China is open to cooperating with all countries in the space station project.

UNOOSA agreements

In this regard, CMA signed agreements in 2019 with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) on global cooperation involving the Tiangong space station.

The two organisations have jointly published an announcement of opportunity, inviting scientists from around the world to submit their research proposals for the opportunity to conduct their own experiments on board the Chinese station.

Chun noted: “By now, 17 foreign nations have confirmed their participation in nine scientific tasks on our station and related work is proceeding well.

“Next, we will continue working with the UNOOSA to solicit proposals for future scientific collaborations,” the CMA head added.

Separately, China and Russia are collaborating to set up a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), for the peaceful exploration and use of the Moon.

The April 29 launch carrying the core module of the Chinese space station marked the second flight of Long March 5B, the most powerful Chinese developed, engineered and built rocket when it comes to carrying capacity to LEO.

Heavy-lift

Featuring a core stage and four side boosters, the launch vehicle has a liftoff weight of 849 tons, capable of sending a 25-ton payload to LEO.

The Long March 5B is the only rocket in China capable of launching and carrying into LEO the Tiangong space station’s heavy modules.

To hold huge spacecraft, the rocket has China’s largest payload fairing that is 20.5 metres tall and 5.2 metres wide.

The Long March 5B made its debut flight in May 2020 at the Wenchang space complex in China, deploying a prototype of China’s new-generation manned spacecraft, an experimental cargo retrieval craft as well as more than 10 experimental payloads into LEO.

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