China plans to launch the core module for its first permanent space station this week, which is the latest major step forward in the country’s space exploration program.
The Tianhe or “Heaven Harmony” module will be launched into space on a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan. If everything goes according to plan, the launch could take place as early as Thursday night.
This will be the first of 11 missions to build and provide a space station for a three-person crew.
This is the planned launch and the past and future of China’s space program.
Complete 11 missions of the space station by the end of 2022
Another 10 transmissions will send two more modules. Four cargo and four manned missions. At least 12 astronauts are undergoing flight training and are preparing to live in the station, including veterans, newcomers and women who have previously flown.
It is estimated that when the construction is completed in the second half of 2022, Tianhe will weigh about 66 tons, which is only the size of the International Space Station. The latter launched its first module in 1998 and will weigh about 450 tons when completed. Tianhe will have a port of call and will also be able to connect with a powerful Chinese space satellite. In theory, it can be expanded with more modules.
The main modules of Tianhe will initially reach the size of the US Skylab space station and the former Soviet Union/Russian Mir space station in the 1970s, the latter having been in operation for more than 14 years after its launch in 1986.
The space station is a long-term goal
In the past ten years, China has launched two experimental modules to prepare for permanent observatories. One of them is called “Tiangong-1”, which means “Tiangong-1” was abandoned and burned when its orbit was out of control. Its successor, Tiangong-2, successfully derailed in 2018.
In the early 1990s, with the rise of the space program, China began to prepare for the space station. It was excluded from the International Space Station mainly because the United States expressed opposition to the secretive nature of the Chinese plan and close military ties.
The rapid progress of space
After years of successful rocket and commercial satellite launches, China sent its first astronaut into space in October 2003. It is the third country to do so independently after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Since the implementation of the Shenzhou V mission, China has sent other astronauts into orbit, placed the crew on the original Tiangong station, and conducted a spacewalk.
It has also strengthened cooperation with space experts from other countries such as France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. NASA must obtain permission from the reluctant Congress to make such a contact.
China has also advanced unmanned missions, especially in lunar exploration, and landed a rover on the other side of the undeveloped moon. Since the US mission in the 1970s, its Chang’e 5 probe sent lunar rocks back to Earth for the first time in December.
Mars rover and future ambitions
The Tianhe mission was carried out a few weeks before the Chinese probe will land on Mars, which will make China the second country after the United States to successfully complete this mission. The Astronomy 1 space probe has been flying around the red planet since February while collecting data. Its bamboo-winged wanderers will look for evidence of life.
Another Chinese plan is to collect soil from asteroids, which is the focus of Japan’s space program.
China plans to perform another mission in 2024 to retrieve lunar samples, and expresses its hope to land humans on the moon and possibly establish a scientific base on the moon. No timetable is proposed for such projects. According to reports, a highly classified space plane is also under development.
How competitive is the Chinese plan?
China’s plan has been steadily and cautiously advanced in accordance with a well-designed timetable, and has largely avoided the failures encountered by the United States and Russia in the fierce competition in the early stages of space flight. The most recent setback occurred during the development of the Long March 5B variant in 2017. The Long March 5 rocket failed during the development. The rocket will be used to push the Tianhe module to orbit, but engineers quickly took action to solve this problem.
Critics say that China’s space program has successfully replicated the achievements of the United States and Russia without making many new breakthroughs. The country’s growing technological prowess may end this conversation in the next few years. Like the United States has done with SpaceX and Blue Origin, the country may need more private sector involvement to stimulate innovation and apply new technologies such as reusable rockets.
Training of Chinese astronauts on the flight of space station crew
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