China orbits ‘Tianhe,’ the core of its multi-module space station
China has begun construction of a large multi-module space station with the launch of the Tianhe core module, starting a period of rapid launches to assemble the outpost by 2022.
Liftoff atop a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket occurred at 11:23 p.m. EDT April 28 (03:23 UTC April 29), 2021, from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, China. It was the second flight for the 54-meter-tall “5B” variant and it took about eight minutes to reach its initial trajectory in low Earth orbit to release Tianhe, which is Chinese for “harmony of the heavens.”
About an hour after being deployed into orbit, the core module’s solar panels were deployed. At some point, its onboard engines are expected to circularize its orbit to around 370 kilometers.
Similar to the Russian Zvezda module on the ISS, Tianhe is 16.6 meters long (some 3 meters longer than Zvezda) and about 4.2 meters in diameter at its widest. Its mass is about 22 metric tons.
Tianhe is to serve as the station’s command and control hub. It has a single docking port on its aft section and four ports on the forward sphere. Also on the forward sphere is an airlock hatch for spacewalks.
Based on the country’s previous space station program testbeds, the single-module Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 (Tiangong is Chinese for “heavenly palace) in 2011 and 2016, the new modular outpost is China’s answer to the multinational International Space Station. When completed, it’ll be close in size to the Russian Mir space station, which orbited Earth between 1986 and 2001.
This is the first in a series of launches to complete the station by late 2022. An additional 10 missions are planned to complete assembly. This includes crew and cargo missions as well as two additional laboratory modules.
As of right now, the next launch for assembly is expected to be the Tianzhou-2 (Chinese for heavenly ship) automated cargo spacecraft, likely in late May 2021. It’ll likely dock with either the aft or the forward port of Tianhe. The cargo spacecraft is based on the initial Tiangong stations and upgraded to serve as resupply freighters.
From there, the crewed Shenzhou 12 mission will launch with three “taikonauts” — Nie Haisheng, Deng Qingming and Ye Guangfu — to stay aboard the new outpost for several months.
Shenzhou 12 will only be the seventh human spaceflight conducted by China since its first in October 2003, and the first since 2016.
Video courtesy of CGTN
Over the next year, several autonomous Tianzhou and crewed Shenzhou missions will take place to build up the outpost. Two laboratory modules are slated to launch sometime in 2022.
The space station will be constructed in orbit in a “T” shape configuration with the two additional modules, each 14.4 meters long.
Taikonauts and potentially astronauts from other countries are expected to use these the laboratory modules to conduct scientific experiments in orbit similar to astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS.
The first module is called Wentian (quest for the heavens) and the second is Mengtian (dreaming of the heavens).
These will be attached to the Tianhe core module, initially on the forward port before a small arm will move it to either the port or starboard side.
At some point, China is expected to launch a Hubble-class telescope called Xuntian (heavenly cruiser) which will co-orbit with the Chinese space station. It’s launch is expected in 2024 and it will be able to periodically dock with the outpost for maintenance and upgrades.
Video courtesy of SciNews
A native of Lonedell, Missouri, Michael McCabe is a former Long Island firefighter and emergency medical technician. He is a non-active Florida EMT with 20 years of fire rescue experience. He is also a lifelong science fiction and space enthusiast. At the age of 10, he watched in his school classroom as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. In 2008, he moved to the Sunshine State and works as a private tour guide at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for a private company based in Orlando. McCabe has been a fan of SpaceFlight Insider since our inception in 2013. He reached out to ask how he could assist our efforts to spread space flight awareness. Shortly thereafter, he was welcomed into our expanding team.