Tianhe (“celestial harmony”), the central module of the new Chinese space station (China Space Station, CSS), was put into orbit early this morning by a Long March 5B launcher, marking the start of 18 months of assembly. Composed of three modules, Tiangong (Chinese name of the CSS which means “heavenly palace”), should be operational by the end of 2022. It will allow China to ensure a permanent presence in space. CSS is scheduled to operate for 10 to 15 years. It will be able to accommodate three astronauts for six-month missions. They will conduct scientific programs and help prepare future Moon exploration missions and the design of the lunar base (terrestrial or orbital) that China wants to build with Russia. If the CSS will be occupied by taikonauts and led by Beijing, the Chinese authorities say they are open to collaborations. Thus, experiments by foreign researchers selected by Chinese scientists and the UN will be conducted aboard Tiangong.
A scientific and geopolitical issue
China does not have the right to participate in missions in the
international space station since 2011, following the adoption by the US Congress of a law preventing all contact between the United States and the Chinese space program for reasons of national security.
In September of the same year, China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1, which operated for just over four years. The Chinese space program admitted losing control of the station in early 2016, and two years later it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. It was succeeded by Tiangong-2, which was launched in 2016 before being deliberately de-orbited in 2019. Both served as a test bed for the CSS, whose assembly has just started.
CSS three times smaller than the ISS
When completed, the CSS will weigh almost 100 tonnes. Three times smaller than the ISS, it will evolve like it in low earth orbit between 340 and 450 km altitude.
The Tianhe module which has just arrived in space weighs 20 tons, is 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter. It is the central element of the CSS which will serve as the station’s control center and the taikonauts’ place of life. About ten missions are planned until November 2022 to finalize the assembly of the Chinese space station. The Wentian science laboratory module should be docked in June 2022. It will be followed one month later by the Mengtian laboratory and observation module. In 2024, a space telescope will join the CSS. With a diameter of two meters, it will fly at a distance from the CSS but can come and moor there for maintenance. The station will have five mooring ports, allowing resupply missions and crewed flights aboard the Shenzhou capsule. The first manned mission aboard the Tianhe module is scheduled for next June.