Tag Archives: China Space Station

China just launched three astronauts to its new space station module

China successfully launched three astronauts into space in what’s a step closer to finishing its new space station. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft (or the Divine Vessel) was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, sending the crew to the core module of the planned space station. 

The three astronauts at the press conference before the launch. Image credit: China’s National Space Administration

The spacecraft will dock with the core module on the planned space station, called Tiangong (or Heavenly Palace), which is still under construction in a low Earth orbit. The astronauts will stay in orbit for three months, during which the life support system and maintenance will be tested. It’s China’s first manned mission in almost five years.

The Tianhe module is 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters across at its widest point. Inside, the astronauts will have to test equipment and technology, some of which have never been used before in a manned space flight. The module also has a set of tools to help the astronauts, including a robotic arm that can move to any location on the station’s surface.

The mission is led by Nie Haisheng, who is also the oldest member of the team and has a background as a fighter pilot. He was recruited to the space program in 1998 and this was his third trip into space. He was aboard China’s first mission with more than one astronaut in 2005 and then was part of the 2013 mission to test its docking technology. 

The second crew member is Liu Boming. He joined China’s 2008 space mission, helping Zhai Zhigang become the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. Now, he will have a key role during outside cabin operations. Tang Hongbo is the crew’s youngest member and the only one of the three that hasn’t traveled to space yet.

“This mission will be the first manned flight as part of the China space station’s construction. I’m very fortunate to kick off the first leg of the space station’s construction,” Nie said at a press conference. “China’s space exploration development has crystallized the Chinese people’s thousand-year dream of flying to the sky.”

A new space station

Over the years, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries — but not China. Its astronauts can’t access the ISS because of political objections coming from the United States. This is why China has had the long-time goal of building a space station of its own, a plan that is now starting to take shape. 

In April, China launched the first module of the space station – which will have to be assembled from several modules launching at different times. The station is expected to be finished by 2022 and is supposed to operate for 10 years. It will the largest artificial structure in space when the ISS is eventually retired. 

The module holds living quarters that will house astronauts for up to six months at a time. In the future, two laboratory modules will also be sent up, followed by four cargo shipments and four rockets laden with crew. Roughly 12 astronauts are currently in training in preparation for missions aboard the Chinese Space Station.

China’s National Space Administration has already selected experiments to be run onboard the station, including work with ultracold atoms to research quantum mechanics, materials science research and work on medicine in microgravity. It also has several international partners that will send experiments onto the space station.

The new station and Russia’s intention to leave the ISS could spell an end to an era of international cooperation in space. Zhou Jianping, chief designer on China’s manned space program, said in a press conference that while China is not considering foreign astronaut participation at this stage of the station’s development, non-Chinese astronauts will “certainly” be welcome into the years ahead. Whether or not that becomes the case, however, remains to be seen.

China became the third country to independently make a soft landing on the Moon in October 2003, launched a pair of experimental single-module space stations, and have collaborated closely with other countries in the field of space exploration. It also launched an unmanned rover to the dark side of the moon.

All countries in the world invited to join on the China Space Station

China’s taking a lead in international space collaboration.

International Space Station.

The International Space Station.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

China has officially invited all countries in the world to join in on the China Space Station (CSS). While the move is bound to make space agencies across the world very happy, it will likely further muddy the waters between China and the current de-facto leader in space exploration, the US. The CCS could become operational as soon as 2022, reported Eric Berger for Ars Technica.

Made in China

I’m quite the space exploration idealist. I’d like nothing better than for all governments to honestly work together in this regard since I believe that our future lies, in part, among the stars. But even I have to contend with the fact that this won’t happen anytime soon. The final frontier simply represents too juicy a political, economic, and military goal — in this matter, it pays to keep your friends close and your rivals barred from admission.

This cold geopolitical reality was made starkly apparent by the US’s refusal to allow China to join aboard the ISS and to take part in its broader space programme, citing fears that its government could siphon technology and adapt it for military use.

Up until now, however, the US had the only space station around. Yes, it is the “International” space station, but NASA was the de-facto mission leader, as it provided the brunt of technology, research, know-how, and heavy-lifting — which meant it could throw its weight around and get its way. With the Trump administration announcing that they’ll withdraw funding by 2024, however, the US has lost a lot of its leverage and — perhaps more ruinous for its position in global space efforts — left the other participating space agencies scrambling to make ends meet for the ISS.

Against this backdrop, China’s invitation is both a boon for global space efforts as well as well as a move to wrestle some of the US’s influence in the space industry. Still, it’s undeniable that the CSS will be a major boost to worldwide space exploration efforts.

“CSS belongs not only to China, but also to the world,” said Shi Zhongjun, China’s Ambassador to UN and other international organizations in Vienna. “All countries, regardless of their size and level of development, can participate in the cooperation on an equal footing.”

Chinese officials also said for state-owned news service Xinhua that they are willing to help developing countries who are interested in pursuing their own space programs. Furthermore, the CSS will allow countries that are interested in space but couldn’t launch their own missions to sent and maintain a crew in orbit.

However, it’s not just developing nations that are interested — some of the US’ European collaborators have also expressed an interest in the Chinese station. The European Space Agency has already signed an agreement with China’s Space Agency send some astronauts aboard the CSS after construction is complete.

Now all that China has to do is to actually build the station — not at all an easy feat.

China Astronaut Training Center presentation depicts China's planned space station. (c) China Astronaut Research and Training Center

China unveiles detailed plans for its own Space Station

A model of the Tiangong-1 space station at the Airshow China exhibition. Photograph: Ranwen/Imaginechina

A model of the Tiangong-1 space station at the Airshow China exhibition. Photograph: Ranwen/Imaginechina

Only a decade since China launched its first human being into orbit, and three years since the first space walk performed by China launched astronaut, Beijing has now unveiled to the world its plans of developing its version of the International Space Station by 2020.

China’s space station will be relatively small at size, weighing in at just 60 tones and consisting of three modules, a core one while the other two are projected to be labs for experimental projects.  Professor Jiang Guohua, from the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, said the facility would be designed to last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy.

In its space exploration projects China regularly uses poetic names like Chang’e – after the moon goddess – for its lunar probes, however for its rocket series officials choose to dub it Long March, in tribute to communist history. For the space station, surprisingly, officials have asked the public to suggest names and symbols for the unit and for a cargo spacecraft that will serve it. How exactly this will go through I don’t know, but if it’s genuinely played though is a pretty praiseworthy initiative. Currently, the Chinese space station program is temporarily dubbed Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”.

Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told a news conference: “Considering past achievements and the bright future, we feel the manned space programme should have a more vivid symbol, and that the future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name.

“We now feel that the public should be involved in the names and symbols, as this major project will enhance national prestige and strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride.”

Concerning dimensions, the central module of the Chinese space station will measure 18.1 metres long, with a maximum diameter of 4.2 metres and a launch weight of 20 to 22 tonnes. The laboratory modules will be shorter, at 14.4 metres, but will have the same diameter and launch weight.

The station would symbolize a great deal for China, especially in the political environment in which it has always based itself on its autonomy and the recent shift of space power. The US scrapped its shuttle program, which currently only leaves Russia with the working capability of sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station, worth $100 billion and which itself is granted to orbit only until 2020, with an eventual extension up to 2028.

Bernardo Patti, head of the space station programme at the European Space Agency (Esa), said: “China is a big country. It is a powerful country, and they are getting richer and richer. They want to establish themselves as key players in the international arena.

“They have decided politically that they want to be autonomous, and that is their call. They must have had some political evaluation that suggests this option is better than the others, and I would think autonomy is the key word.”

China Astronaut Training Center presentation depicts China's planned space station. (c) China Astronaut Research and Training Center

China Astronaut Training Center presentation depicts China's planned space station. (c) China Astronaut Research and Training Center

Helping lay down the foundation, China is set to loft the Tiangong-1 module this year as a platform to help master key rendezvous and docking technologies, which will only operate one to two years. The following step is the docking of an unmanned Chinese Shenzhou-8 spacecraft which will first attempt to dock with the platform, to be followed later by two piloted Shezhou missions to further hone rendezvous and docking skills.

Placed into orbit in 2013, the Tiangong-2 will offer three astronauts about 20 days of living conditions. Tiangong-3, to be launched two years later. Combined, the Tiangong will offer three astronauts 40 days worth of living conditions. Lessons learned from the space laboratory stage will lead to a space station phase, with this complex consisting of the Core Cabin Module (CCM), the Laboratory Cabin Module 1 (LCM-1), a Cabin Laboratory Module II (LCM-2), along with a Shenzhou-manned vessel and a Shenzhou cargo craft.

In other related future Chinese space program events, China hopes to make its first moon landing within two years and to put an astronaut on the moon as early as 2025.