China to launch space station core module in 2018
China will launch a space station core module in 2018 as the first step in completing the country's first space outpost, according to a senior engineer with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) on Thursday.
The core module of the space station, named "Tianhe-1" according to previous reports, will be launched on board a new-generation Long March-5 heavyweight carrier rocket, said Bao Weimin, director with CASC and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
It will be followed by a series of launches for other components of the space station, including two space labs, which will dock with the core module while in space, in the next four years or so, he said, adding that the space station will be completed around 2022.
Assembly of the core module has already been completed and tests are currently under way, said Bao, who is in Beijing for the annual session of China's top political advisory body.
Earlier reports said the new Chinese space station will initially be much smaller than the current International Space Station (ISS), which weighs 420 tonnes, but could be expanded for future scientific research and international cooperation.
With the ISS set to retire in 2024, the Chinese space station will offer a promising alternative, and China will be the only country with a permanent space station.
Bao said the Chinese outpost will function in orbit for "dozens of years," and that it had been specially designed to be able to handle space debris.
"For the big pieces (of space debris), we could conduct evasive maneuvers, and for those measuring less than 10 cm in size, we just take the hit," Bao said, adding that all key parts of the space station will be serviceable and replaceable.
He went on to say that the next five years will see some exciting advances in China's space program.
In particular, the Long March-5 launch missions have been scheduled this year, including one that will take the Chang'e-5 lunar probe to the Moon in November and return with lunar samples.
Long March-5 is a large, two-stage rocket with a payload capacity of 25 tonnes to low-Earth orbit and 14 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit, the largest of China's carrier rockets. Its carrying capacity is about 2.5 times that of the current main model Long March carrier rockets.
The rocket will also be used in China's planned Mars probes, and possibly future missions to Jupiter and other planets within the solar system, Bao said.
China has completed its space station core module ready for launch in 2018
Tianhe-1, the first of three 20-tonne space station modules, was completed by the end of 2016 and has entered a testing phase, according to Bao Weimin of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
Tianhe-1 will launch from Wenchang on a new Long March 5heavy-lift rocket sometime in 2018, which was developed specifically to allow China to put large space station modules into low Earth orbit.
Bao explained that once in orbit at 393 kilometres above the Earth, the core module would be manoeuvred in order to avoid the larger pieces of space debris, and carry shielding to protect it from smaller, untrackable objects.
Above: Rendering of the Tianhe-1 Chinese Space Station core module (CMSA).
Travelling at orbital speeds of around 7 km per second, even tiny pieces of space junk pose a huge threat to spacecraft, as demonstrated by damage to a window on the International Space Station.
The Tianhe module will also feature life support systems including the ability to recycle a high rate of water from respiration and excretion.
The Chinese Space Station (CSS) will also be refuelled and resupplied by Tianzhou cargo spacecraft, the first of which will launch in April on a Long March 7 rocket in order to test on-orbit propellant resupply with the Tiangong-2 testbed space lab.
Above: Tianzhou-1 undergoing testing at the AIT centre in Tianjin, North China.
Bao also told Xinhua (Chinese) that from 2018 to the completion, the CSS project will require more than a dozen launches, likely meant to include Shenzhou crewed missions to the facility.
Two experiment modules named Wentian and Mengtian, also with a mass of 20 tonnes, will follow into orbit via Long March 5 rocckets. Smooth progress would see the CSS completed around 2022.
The two science modules will feature experiment racks focusing on the areas of space life sciences and biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics and combustion, material science in space, fundamental physics in microgravity and other multi-purpose uses.
Above: A control moment gyroscope for controlling the orientation of the Chinese Space Station (CAST).
The CSS will feature two 30-metre solar panels and two robotic arms for construction, repair and docking.
Also expected to be part of the CSS is a free-flying space telescope with a two-metre mirror, dubbed 'China's Hubble'.
The Xuntian module is expected to provide a level of resolution no less than the famous Hubble space telescope, but with a field of view 300 times larger.
Above: An illustration of China's Xuntian space telescope.
Cooperation in space
China last year signed an agreement with the United Nationsto open its future space station to spacecraft, science experiments and even astronauts from countries around the world, particularly from developing nations.
Last month the China Manned Space Agency also signed a deal with the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to cooperate on long-term human spaceflight, potentially combining Italy's experience with the ISS and China's future CSS facilities.
China began its human spaceflight programme in 1992, and in 2003 became only the third country to independently put astronauts in space, after the United States and Russia (and Soviet Union).
The CSS is the ultimate goal of 'Project 921', which China aims to keep permanently crewed with 3-6 astronauts for at least a decade.