China plans to launch the base unit of its first permanent space station this week as a final major step forward for the country’s space exploration program.
The Tianhe spacecraft, or the “Celestial Harmony” module, will be launched into space aboard a Long March 5B rocket from Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan. The launch could come as early as Thursday evening if all goes according to plan.
This will be the first of 11 missions to build and resupply the space station for a three-man crew.
Here’s a look at the planned, past and future launch of the Chinese space program.
Eleven missions are planned to complete the space station by the end of 2022
10 additional launches that will send two more units; Four cargo shipments and four crew missions. Training of at least 12 astronauts to travel to and live in the station, including veterans from previous flights, new arrivals and women.
When completed in late 2022, the Tianhe is expected to weigh about 66 tons, a fraction of the size of the International Space Station, which launched its first unit in 1998 and will weigh about 450 tons when completed. Tianhe will have a docking port and can also communicate with a powerful Chinese space satellite. In theory it can be expanded with more units.
The main unit in Tianhe will initially be the size of the US Skylab space station in the 1970s and the former Soviet / Russian Mir Station, which operated for more than 14 years after its launch in 1986.
The space station is a long-range target
China has launched two test units in the past decade in preparation for a permanent installation. The first, Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace-1”, was abandoned and burned at the uncontrolled loss of the path. Its successor, Tiangong-2, was successfully thrown from space in 2018.
China began preparations for a space station in the early 1990s when the space program gained momentum. It was largely banned from the International Space Station due to US objections to the secretive nature of the Chinese program and its close military ties.
The rapid advance in space
After years of successful commercial launch of missiles and satellites, China sent its first astronaut into space in October 2003. It was the third country to do so independently after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Since the Shenzhou 5 mission, China has sent other astronauts into orbit, placed crews on the original Tiangong station, and conducted a space tour.
It has also strengthened its cooperation with space experts from other countries, including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. NASA must obtain permission from reluctant Congress to participate in such communications.
China also continued unmanned missions, particularly in lunar exploration, and the rover landed on the far side of the moon, which had not been explored much. In December, the Chang’e 5 probe brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time since US missions in the 1970s.
Rover exercises and aspirations for the future
The Tianhe mission comes just weeks before the arrival of a Chinese probe to Mars, making China the second country to do so after the United States, as the Tianhe 1 spacecraft has been orbiting the red planet since February while collecting data. Thief Zhurong will search for evidence of life.
Another Chinese program focuses on collecting soil from an asteroid, and is a major focus of the Japanese space program.
China plans a new mission in 2024 to return the moon sample and has said it wants people to land on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. No timeline has been proposed for such projects. It is said that a top-secret space plane is being developed.
How competitive is the China program?
The Chinese program proceeded steadily and cautiously according to a carefully designed schedule, largely avoiding the failures seen in the efforts of the United States and Russia when they found themselves in fierce competition during the early days of spaceflight. One recent setback occurred when the Long March 5 missile failed in 2017 during the development of the Long March 5B variant that would be used to put the Tianhe unit into orbit, but engineers quickly arrived to solve the problem.
Critics say the Chinese space program has successfully reproduced the achievements of the United States and Russia without opening new heights. The country’s growing technological prowess could put an end to such conversations in the coming years. The country may need more private sector participation to drive innovation, as the United States has done with SpaceX and Blue Origin, and to implement new technologies, such as reusable rockets.
Chinese astronauts train for manned flights with a space station
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