China launches second space station module to support science experiments

China is set to add a new bay to its space station after launching the Wentian module early Sunday morning.

Wentian was launched into orbit on the Long March 5B heavy-class rocket, which launched at 2:25 am EDT (06:25 GMT or 14:25 Beijing time) on July 24 from the Wenchang Cosmodrome on the southern island of Hainan. . The 58.7-foot (17.9-meter) module will soon align with the orbit of Tianhe, China’s first space station module, which was launched in April 2021. Wentian is expected to meet and dock with the port attached to Tianhe later Sunday.

Wentian, which literally means “search for heaven,” is the second of three modules planned to be launched by China. The third, named Mengtian, is due to launch in October and will complete the Tiangong T-shaped space station. Including the Shenzhou crewed spacecraft and the Tianzhou cargo ship docked at the station, the completed Tiangong would be about 20% more massive than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs about 460 tons.

On the subject: The Long March family of Chinese rockets: history and photos

Three astronauts from the Shenzhou 14 mission are currently aboard the Tianhe, awaiting the arrival of the new module. According to Chinese state media, the trio will hold Wentian’s first live science lecture after the tests in the near future.

Wentian’s primary role is to host a series of experimental rooms that allow astronauts to conduct a wide range of scientific experiments in orbit; it also carries solar panels and a new EVA airlock. In addition, it has additional sleeping quarters for the astronauts, allowing China to conduct a crew transfer during which six crew members temporarily remain on board the Tiangong; The first such transmission is expected to take place before the departure of the current crew in December.

While Wentian will begin its stay at Tianhe’s forward docking port, the main module’s 33-foot (10 m) robotic arm will be used to move Wentian to the side port in the coming months. Earlier this year, China carried out the necessary maneuvers using the Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft, which was carrying supplies to the space station to support an earlier crew mission. The spaceship was released a few days ago to make way for Wentian’s arrival.

Wentian also has its own 16.4-foot (5-meter) long robotic arm that will be able to work independently or connect with its larger sister arm, Tianhe.

China began its space station project back in 1992, approving a plan to develop capabilities to launch astronauts into space, test life support aboard small space labs, and build new large rockets capable of launching modules like the roughly 48,500 pounds (22,000 kg) . ) Tianhe and Wentian modules.

The country plans to maintain a permanent crew on the Tiangong space station for at least ten years, with each crew of three astronauts staying on board for six months. China also said it would allow foreign astronauts and even space tourists to visit the orbital outpost in the future, as well as conduct international experiments, the first of which have already been selected.

The space station will also support the powerful Xuntian Exploration Space Telescope, which China plans to launch around 2024. The Hubble-class observatory will operate in the same orbit as Tiangong, which means it will be able to dock with the station for refueling. modernization and repair.

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