China aims to complete construction of the Tianhe space station around 2022. Credit: CMSEO.

China is only months away from embarking on a bold new era in its space program — the imminent start of construction of its space station.

According to China.org.cn, the maiden flight of the Long March-5B rocket carrying a trial version of China’s new-generation manned spaceship is expected to take place in April.

The rocket, the prototype core capsule of the space station and the experimental manned spaceship are undergoing tests at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the coast of south China’s island province of Hainan, the report said.

During the flight in mid to late April, the experimental manned spaceship will be sent into space with no crew. The prototype of the core capsule of the space station will not be launched, the report said.

The Long March-5B is a modified version of the Long March-5, currently China’s largest carrier rocket, and will be mainly used for sending capsules of China’s space station and large spacecraft to the low-Earth orbit, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

The rocket uses environment-friendly fuel, including kerosene, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It has a takeoff weight of about 849 tonnes and a payload capacity of 22 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, said Wang Jue, chief director of the Long March-5 development team at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

After the maiden flight of the Long March-5B, the Long March-5 carrier rocket will launch China’s first Mars probe and the Chang’e-5 lunar probe later this year, the report said.

China’s current largest spacecraft, the core module will be able to support a long-term stay of three astronauts in space. Credit: CCTV.

China aims to complete construction of the space station around 2022. The total cost of the project is estimated to be around US$30 billion.

According to the CMSA, more than 10 missions are planned in the next three years to complete the construction and master technologies for in-orbit assembly and construction of large complex spacecraft, long-term manned spaceflight in near-Earth space and large-scale space science experiments, the report said.

The space station will be a T shape with the Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”) core module at the center and a lab capsule on each side.

China’s current largest spacecraft, the core module will be able to support a long-term stay of three astronauts in space. To enable astronauts to stay longer in orbit, the space station will be equipped with a renewable life support system, the report said.

Meanwhile, the manned spaceship is being developed for the operation of the space station and future manned lunar exploration missions, the report said.

With a length of 8.8 meters and a takeoff weight of 21.6 tonnes, the spaceship will be able to carry six astronauts. It is designed for safety and reliability, and can adapt to multiple tasks. The return capsule is reusable, the report said.

Since the spaceship will be used in both low-Earth orbit and deep space exploration, the design of its structure and thermal protection will be a great challenge.

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