China has boasted that its much-anticipated space station will have “out-of-this-world” technological capabilities that can match it with the International Space Station operated by the US and Russia.
The Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) is scheduled to be launched into a low orbit 400 kilometers above sea level by 2022 and will be the third phase of the country’s 921-2 space station program.
Tiangong-1, the first prototype, crashed to Earth earlier this month after seven years in orbit testing docking systems and serving as a manned laboratory. Tiangong-2, launched on September 15, 2016, is refining more advanced space technologies; it will also be temporary.
Zhou Jianping, lead designer in the China Manned Space Engineering Program, told the People’s Daily that the space station would surpass the Soviet-era Mir, and provide similar levels of information to the International Space Station (ISS). It would also match the energy capabilities, power technologies and cost-efficiency ratios of the ISS.
Mir, launched in 1986 to develop technologies for a permanent occupation of space, was decommissioned and fell back to Earth in March 2001, while the ISS is also approaching the end of its service life after launching its first proponent in 1998. The ISS is expected to be redundant by 2028.
Far more complex than its two test prototypes, Tiangong has been designed with a core module called Tianhe (“Heavenly Harmony”), which will contain life support and navigation avionics, two experimental supplementary cabins and a kitchen and toilet. They will be assembled in orbit from components launched separately.
When it is finished Tiangong will weigh 66 tons, and be capable of accommodating up to six taikonauts (Chinese astronauts), despite having only about one-fifth of the ISS’ mass. It will have three docking ports and rendezvous equipment for manned and cargo spacecraft.
Zhou also revealed that Tiangong would have a companion: an optical module carrying a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in the same orbit, fitted with cameras of a similar definition to those on the Hubble Space Telescope — but with a field of view 200 times wider.
Tiangong will orbit about 393 kilometers above the Earth, with an expected lifespan of at least 10 years; it can also be expanded for continued operations. And there is one unexpected bonus: the space station may host the first Chinese space tourists and one or two lab modules may be available for commercial hiring. Zhou said that detailed guidelines and prices were still being determined.
It is a crucial time for China’s ambitious manned space exploration plans, as assembling of the station’s main cabin must be completed this year, paving the way for large-scale joint ground experiments.
Xinhua also reported this week that the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp was developing a new type of space cargo shuttle composed of inflatable deployment components, flexible heat shielding and composite materials. Intended to be used for assembling Tiangong, as well as unmanned lunar exploration, the shuttle is scheduled to have its maiden flight in 2019.