Construction of the Chinese space station continues.
Main element Chinese space station launched into low-earth orbit tonight (April 28) and launches at 11:23 pm ET (0323 GMT on April 29) on a large Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Cosmodrome on Hainan Island.
The module is 59 feet (18 meters) long, known as Tianhe (“Harmony of Heaven”) is the first launch component of the space station. It would later be joined in low Earth orbit by two slightly smaller elements, forming a T-shaped space station, which China plans to complete by the end of 2022.
But major action is expected in Tianhe well ahead of that: A Chinese cargo spacecraft is expected to visit the module next month, and three astronauts will arrive on board in June if all goes according to plan.
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Road to Tianhe
China began laying the foundation for today’s launch ten years ago. In September 2011, the country launched a prototype space laboratory called Tiangong 1to continue building your manned spaceflight skill set and testing the technologies needed to build and maintain a large space station in low Earth orbit.
An unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou 8 autonomously docked with Tiangong 1 in November 2011. Then, in June 2012, the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft delivered three astronauts to the space laboratory for a two-week stay. A year later, three more crew members visited Tiangong 1 for two weeks as part of the Shenzhou 10 mission. (The Shenzhou program included three manned orbital flights into space prior to visiting Tiangong 1, sending astronauts into the air in 2003, 2005, and 2008.)
After that, not a single crewed ship darkened the door of Tiangong 1. But China launched a second space laboratory, Tiangong 2in September 2016. The following month, Shenzhou 11 sent three astronauts to Tiangong 2, and this time they stayed on board for a month.
In April 2017 Tianzhou 1 cargo ship docked with Tiangong 2 and fueled the space laboratory. Tianzhou 1 repeated this dance of docking and refueling two more times over the next five months, demonstrating capabilities that will be very useful to space station operators.
Neither Tiangong-1 nor Tiangong-2 remain in the air. First space laboratory fell to Earth uncontrollably in April 2018, lit over the South Pacific. But China kept control of Tiangong 2 until the end, leading to its death in July 2019, also over the South Pacific.
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New research station in near-earth orbit
When it is launched and operational, the China Space Station will be only 20% more massive than International space station (ISS), which could tip the scales to 460 tonnes here on Earth. And if the ISS usually accommodates six or seven astronauts at the same time, then the Chinese version is expected to accommodate crews of three.
But China plans to squeeze more research activity into this smaller package. For example, the station will have 14 internal test racks and more than 50 external docking points for instruments designed to collect data in space. Scientific American recently reported…
The leaders of the Chinese station have already selected about 100 experiments to conduct on the ship, and some of them may begin collecting data as early as next year, Scientific American reports.
Not all of this research will be done by Chinese scientists. Nine international experiments have already been selected. fly to stations as part of a joint program between the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the China Manned Space Agency, and more such requests are expected in the future.
None of these nine research projects are based in the United States, which is not surprising. US law prohibits NASA and the White House Science and Technology Policy Office from cooperating with their Chinese counterparts in space activities unless Congress has previously approved such cooperation. This ban, in effect since 2011, is known as the Wolf Amendment after its advocate, former Rep. Frank Wolf of Rhode Virginia.
And China is not a partner in the ISS consortium led by the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
China also plans launch a powerful space telescope in 2024… The observatory will occupy an orbit similar to that of the space station, Chinese officials said, allowing for relatively efficient refueling, upgrading and maintenance of the sight.
There is a precedent for such work in orbit; NASA astronauts serviced the Hubble Space Telescope during five space shuttle flights from 1993 to 2009. But each time they had to launch Hubble from Earth; there was no space station nearby that could serve as a foothold. (Hubble flies about 90 miles, or 150 kilometers, above the ISS, where astronauts have been constantly appearing since November 2000.)
Mike Wall is the author of “There“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book on the quest for alien life. Follow it on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.