The main module of the Chinese space station now revolves around the Earth.
The module, called Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), launched wednesday evening (April 28) on top of a Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket from the Wenchang spacecraft launch site on the northeast coast of southern China’s Hainan province.
Tianhe is the basic module for Chinese first space station. The module is touted as the largest spacecraft the country has ever developed; it is 16.6 meters long, 4.2 m in diameter at its widest point, and had a takeoff weight of 22.5 tonnes.
Related: The latest news on the Chinese space program
Quick launch schedule
Wednesday’s launch will be followed by a rapid series of cargo and crew launches aimed at completing construction of the space station by the end of 2022.
The space-based construction effort requires 10 additional launches from 2021 to 2022: two more module launches, four manned missions and four cargo flights, such as reported by China Global Television Network (CGTN).
Three types of Long March carrier rockets will jointly launch the 10 remaining missions.
When completed, China’s orbiting outpost will form a T-shape with Tianhe in the center and two other modules, Wentian and Mengtian, on either side, according to Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the Chinese manned space program.
Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST), said the station can accommodate no more than six astronauts at the same time. Regular launches of crewed and cargo spaceships will ensure a long-term human presence in Earth orbit for research and service, Chinese officials said.
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Crew and freight
Shortly after the launch of the base module, Li Shangfu, commander-in-chief of flight missions for the space station phase of the Chinese manned space program, reported that the Long March-5B Y2 rocket had accurately sent Tianhe in orbit works well after deployment. “I now announce that the Tianhe Core Module Launch Mission is a complete success!” Li said.
Hao Chun, director of China’s Manned Space Engineering Bureau, said China Central Television (CCTV): “Then we will launch the Tianzhou 2 cargo vessel in May and the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft in June. Three astronauts will remain in orbit for three months on the manned Shenzhou 12 spacecraft.”
Hao said the Tianzhou 3 freighter will launch to Tianhe in September, and the crewed Shenzhou 13 spacecraft will follow in October. Shenzhou 13 will carry three astronauts, who will stay in Tianhe for six months.
China plans to launch six more station construction missions in 2022. These will include the Wentian and Mengtian laboratory modules, two cargo spacecraft and two crewed spacecraft, completing the assembly of the outpost in orbit.
“The two manned spacecraft, also composed of three astronauts respectively, will remain in orbit for approximately six months,” Hao said, referring to the manned flights of 2022. “This is the general arrangement of our missions.”
The Chinese space station is to operate in low earth orbit at an altitude of between 340 kilometers and 450 kilometers. It has an expected lifespan of 10 years, although it can last over 15 years with proper maintenance and repairs, CCTV reported.
You can watch the Tianhe launch video and get a glimpse of the plans for the Chinese space station. here, here and here.
Leonard David is the author of “Moon Rush: The New Space Race,” which was published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for over five years. decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.