China aims to have its first operational space station by next year.
Construction of the orbiting habitat – nicknamed Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese – began in April, when a Long March 5B rocket placed the central module into low earth orbit. Plans call for more modules to be put into orbit over the next 12 years. months, with successive crews aboard the station performing a series of tests and spacewalks to manage the assembly.
When complete, Tiangong will weigh around 150,000 pounds and be about one-sixth the size of the International Space Station, a 900,000-pound craft that, over the past two decades, has hosted more than 200 astronauts from over a dozen countries. Tiangong will have a large robotic arm for construction and maintenance, and a powerful space telescope is planned, which will remain close to the station.
Tiangong is considered a centerpiece of China’s increasingly ambitious space program, which has recorded a number of notable achievements in recent years, including the successful landing of a rover on Mars in May.
The construction of Tiangong comes a decade after national security concerns led the United States to ban the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from working with China and companies based in China, thus preventing Chinese astronauts from the ISS. Although it is built solely by China, a number of other countries have committed to conducting experiments aboard the Tiangong. China has not disclosed how much it will cost to build or operate the station.
Tiangong’s base module – Tianhe, or “Harmony of the Heavens” in Chinese – is now in orbit at an altitude of about 250 miles. In 2022, two more modules are due to be launched at the budding outpost: Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), both of which will house science experiments.
The ISS has a large robotic arm, just like Tiangong. China says the arm will be used for cargo handling, station maintenance and to help control the docking of spacecraft, although US Space Command warned Congress earlier this year that the technology could also be deployed as a tool to attack satellites.
The launch of China’s response to the Hubble Space Telescope is scheduled for 2024. The Chinese Space Station’s telescope, also known as Xuntian or “Survey the Heavens” in Chinese, will study and photograph the universe at the Using its 2-meter-diameter lens and a 2.5 billion-pixel camera The telescope will orbit near Tiangong so that it can be serviced and refueled.
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