Liu Yang became China's first woman in space, after she and two male colleagues were blasted off from the edge of the Gobi Desert en route for the Tiangong space module. Credit: Handout.

As China advances steadily toward its goal of building a manned space station, the country’s medical experts are playing an indispensable role in the grand program, according to a leading scientist.

Du Jichen, a member of the Paris-based International Academy of Astronautics and president of the Aerospace Center Hospital in Beijing, said that medical experts are conducting extensive research to prepare Chinese astronauts for the coming space station mission, China Daily reported.

“We’re now focused on the impact on astronauts’ health during long-term space missions,” Du said.

“We want to investigate how the special environment inside the space station, especially its weightlessness, will affect astronauts’ health, particularly their cerebral functions. And we’ll explore ways to ensure their health during lengthy missions,” he added.

Studies have shown that mid- or long-term stays in space mainly affect the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. Extended missions also impact the immune, circulatory, respiratory and urinary systems, according to the professor.

Scientists have used simulations to observe the effects of weightlessness on cerebral functions and to devise solutions. They are also working on methods to monitor long-term effects on astronauts’ health after they return from extended space missions.

According to government plans, China will start putting together its first manned space station around 2020. In the first step, a Long March 5B carrier rocket will put the station’s core module into orbit that year. Next, other components and astronauts will be ferried to the core module to assemble the station, the report said.

The multimodule station, named Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, will be mainly composed of three components — a core module attached to two space labs — having a combined weight of more than 90 metric tons, according to the China Academy of Space Technology.

Space studies have shown that mid- or long-term stays in space mainly affect the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. Credit: The Atlantic.

The space station is expected to be built and become fully operational around 2022 and is set to operate for about 15 years, the academy said.

Currently, China is training its astronauts for the space station mission. Astronauts will stay up to six months inside the station during each posting, space officials have said.

In addition to serving space travel, scientists have also been taking advantage of space missions to facilitate research into diseases, Du said.

“The micro gravity in space has a special effect on some kinds of cells, which will be good for the treatment of particular diseases. Also, natural radiation in space is likely to curb the growth of some cancer cells,” the expert explained.

Weighing 66 tonnes, the Tiangong space station will be T-shaped with the Tianhe core module at the center and the Wentian and Mengtian experiment capsules on each side.

The station, which will orbit 340 to 450 km above the Earth’s surface, could be enlarged to 180 tonnes if required and accommodate three to six astronauts. It is designed to last at least 10 years and could be prolonged through in-orbit maintenance.

Sixteen experiment racks will be installed on the space station to support hundreds of space research projects.

China is also selecting new astronauts for space station missions. After the construction of the station is completed, China welcomes overseas astronauts to work together with domestic astronauts aboard China’s space station.

International spacecraft can also be docked with China’s space station if they use a Chinese docking mechanism.

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