May 18, 2021

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China is preparing to launch the core of its first permanent space station

China is preparing to launch the core of its first permanent space station

China plans to launch the main module for its first permanent space station this week in the latest breakthrough for the country’s space exploration program.

The Tianhe module – or “Heavenly Harmony” – is ready to be launched into space aboard a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan. The launch could come as early as Thursday evening if everything goes as planned.

It would be the first of 11 missions to build and supply the space station for a crew of three.

Here’s a look at the expected launch and the past and future of the Chinese space program.

What’s happening in 11 launches

Ten successive launches will send two more modules; four shipments of cargo supplies and four manned missions. At least 12 astronauts are training to fly and live in the station, including veterans of previous flights and new arrivals.

When completed by the end of 2022, Tianhe is expected to weigh around 60 tons, a fraction of the size of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and will weigh around 410 tons when completed. Tianhe will have a docking port and will also be able to connect with a powerful Chinese space satellite. Theoretically, it could be expanded with more modules.

Tianhe’s main module will initially be the size of the 1970s American Skylab space station and former Soviet / Russian Mir, which operated for more than 14 years after launch in 1986.

The space station was the long-term goal

China has launched two experimental modules over the past decade in preparation for a permanent station. One, Tiangong-1, meaning “Heavenly Palace-1”, was abandoned and burned down during an uncontrolled loss of orbit. Its successor, Tiangong-2, was successfully taken out of orbit in 2018.

China began preparations for a space station in the early 1990s as its space program gained momentum. He was banned from the ISS largely due to US objections to the covert nature of the Chinese program and close military ties.

Rapid progress in space

After years of successful commercial rocket launches and satellites, China launched its first astronaut into space in October 2003. It was only the third country to do so independently after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Since that Shenzhou 5 mission, China has sent more astronauts into orbit, placed crews on the original Tiangong station, and conducted a spacewalk.

It has also strengthened cooperation with space experts from other countries, including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. NASA must obtain permission from a reluctant congress to engage in such contacts.

China has also carried out unmanned missions, particularly in lunar exploration, and has landed a rover on the little-explored side of the moon. In December, its Chang’e 5 probe returned moon rocks to Earth for the first time since US missions in the 1970s.

Mars rover and future ambitions

The Tianhe mission comes just weeks before a Chinese probe landed on Mars, making China the third country to achieve this goal after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. The Tianwen-1 spacecraft has been orbiting the red planet since February while collecting data. His Zhurong rover will look for evidence of life.

In this photo from November 2019, the Chinese lander’s hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities on Mars are tested at a facility in Huailai, Hebei Province of China. It is expected to land on Mars in the next few weeks. (Andy Wong / The Associated Press)

Another Chinese program aims to collect soil from an asteroid, a key target of the Japanese space program.

China is planning another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a science base there. No timeline has been proposed for these projects. A highly confidential space plane is also reportedly under development.

How competitive is the Chinese program?

The Chinese program progressed steadily and cautiously, largely avoiding the failures seen in the efforts of the United States and Russia with their astronaut programs, missions to the moon and Mars when they were stuck in intense competition during the early exciting days of space flight.

A recent setback for China came when a Long March 5 rocket failed in 2017, during the development of the Long March 5B variant that will be used to put the Tianhe module into orbit. The engineers moved quickly to fix the problem.

Critics say the Chinese space program has successfully reproduced the results of the United States and Russia without opening new horizons.

The country’s growing technological prowess could put an end to such talk in the coming years, although the country may need more private sector involvement to spur innovation, as the United States did with SpaceX and Blue Origin, and to apply new technologies such as reusable rockets.


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