On April 28, China successfully launched a 22-metric-ton module, kicking off a flurry of missions aimed at building the country’s own space station.
At 11:23 p.m. Eastern, a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket launched from the coastal Wenchang spaceport. After 490 seconds of launch, the Tianhe space station core module separated from the first stage.
Just over an hour after launch, the solar array was deployed. Soon after, Li Shangfu, the chief commander of China’s Manned Spaceflight Program, confirmed the launch’s success.
Tianhe, which means “harmony of the heavens,” is predicted to lift its orbit to about 370 kilometers above the Earth in the near future. The unmanned Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is scheduled to dock with Tianhe in mid-late May, ahead of three astronauts arriving aboard Shenzhou-12 in June.
The missions are the first three of 11 planned for 2021 and 2022 to build the 66-ton, three-module orbital outpost. According to a senior space official, a Long March 2F rocket and the Shenzhou spacecraft will be on standby at Jiuquan at all times to conduct emergency rescue missions to the space station.
Tianhe is fitted with a multi-docking center to promote construction of the space station and enable crew to engage in extravehicular activities. It is a much larger improvement on China’s smaller, 8-ton Tiangong testbed space labs.
The Tianhe, which is 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters wide, will provide regenerative life support and the main living quarters for astronauts, as well as propulsion to keep them in orbit.
China’s space station is now in the construction process, nearly 30 years after the project was first approved in 1992.
In order to move forward with the mission, China built and tested the Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March 2F for human spaceflight, Tianlian relay satellites, rendezvous and docking technologies, microgravity refueling, new launch vehicles, and the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center during this period.
The CSS is predicted to last at least ten years in space. Wentian and Mengtian, two experiment modules set to launch in 2022, will house a variety of experiments in astronomy, space medicine, space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid mechanics, microgravity combustion, and space technologies.
Via collaboration between the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the China Manned Space Agency, international research payloads and experiments have also been selected for a journey to the CSS (CMSA)
China had expressed interest in joining the International Space Station project, but due to US policy against China’s space programs, membership was effectively refused.
The failure of the second Long March 5 to launch in 2017 postponed the launch of the Tianhe core module. The test launch of the Long March 5B version for low Earth orbit launches was postponed while problems with the core stage’s YF-77 liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen engine were isolated and resolved.
The Xuntian optical module, a co-orbiting Hubble-class space telescope, will follow the CSS in orbit. The space telescope would have a 2-meter aperture, similar to Hubble’s, but with a field of view 300 times larger, enabling it to survey 40 percent of the sky over a decade.
For maintenance and repairs, Xuntian will be able to dock with the CSS. The space station could also be expanded from three to six modules, with backup modules being created.