Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

A projected next week blast off is expected to kick-start China’s space station construction effort in Earth orbit.

This week’s rollout of the three-person Shenzhou-12 spacecraft atop a Long March-2F launch vehicle signals all is go at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office said four groups of 16 astronauts are now training for four upcoming piloted space missions over the coming two years.

The imminent Shenzhou-12 takeoff marks China’s first crewed space mission in half a decade.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Space walks

According to China Central Television (CCTV) interviews with key space officials, building the space station will involve a large number of space walks, which can last for hours. On the ground, training equipment is helping the astronauts to prepare for the mission.

“A standard space walk will last for six to seven hours. To complete the task, efficiency is very important. Of course safety is also very important. We have made new improvements to the space suit to meet the needs of the space station, which will allow astronauts to work more efficiently,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program.

Credit: CCTV/CNSA/Inside Outer Space screengrab


Foreign astronauts

As noted in a CCTV interview, China is also working with global space agencies, including the United Nations’ Outer Space Division. An initial grouping of nine projects from 17 countries have been selected to be onboard the Chinese space station.

Furthermore, joint crewed missions with other nations are also under discussion.

“In the future, there will definitely be foreign astronauts participating in Chinese space flights, while working and living on China’s space station. Foreign astronauts are already learning Chinese, and preparing to participate in Chinese flights,” said Hao Chun, Director of the China Manned Space Agency.

Robotic arm helps on space station construction.
Credit: CCTV/CNSA/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Fast-pace construction

The space station Tiangong will be completed in less than two years. By the end of 2022, it is expected that Chinese astronauts will work and live in the space station for a period of six months per mission.

As stated by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), all facilities at the launch site for the takeoff of the trio of crewmen onboard Shenzhou-12 are reportedly in good condition.

Now underway is a functional check of the spacecraft and booster to test the matching between the two. After that, the Shenzhou-12 astronauts will make on-site confirmation and then participate in the full-system launch drill, said Deng Xiaojun, No. 0 commander of the Shenzhou-12 manned mission.

Key elements

China sent into space the Tianhe station core module on April 29, starting a series of key launch missions that aim to complete the construction of the space station by the end of 2022.

The country launched the Tianzhou-2 on May 29, which successfully docked with Tianhe in about eight hours to deliver supplies, equipment and propellant.

Credit: CCTV/CNSA/Inside Outer Space screengrab

In a recently posted Xinhua news story, both the core module and cargo craft are equipped with independent power supply systems. After docking, the two systems form a connected grid and achieve mutual transmission of electric power.

“The two independent systems work like two smartphones,” said Yu Lei, an engineer in charge of power supply to the Tianzhou-2 project. “They can undergo both separate and mutual charging.”

Power demand

When docking with the space station, Xinhua adds, the Tianzhou-2 supply craft is in sleep mode and has relatively lower power demand. Its solar panels can provide abundant power most of the time, and the surplus is stored to be used for astronaut activities and scientific research that requires higher energy consumption.

“Its solar panels not only fulfill the power demand of Tianzhou-2 directly, but also charge its batteries,” said Wang Zhenxu, a designer of the power supply system of the Tianzhou-2 project.

Three sets of lithium ion batteries power the entire cargo craft when the combination enters the shadow areas. The solar panels work again after it moves into the sunlight, and continue supplying power and charging.

China’s space station is projected to be completed in late 2022.
Credit: CAST

In-orbit life

The core module Tianhe, notes Xinhua, is powered by third-generation flexible GaAs (gallium arsenide) solar panels, which provide high power output, are light, small when folded, have long in-orbit life, and can be repeatedly folded and unfolded.

The thickness of a solar panel is less than one millimeter, only half of the weight per unit area of the traditional solar arrays.

The power area of Tianhe’s solar panels covers 80 square meters, which can provide 20 kilowatts of power to the core module, said Yu Hui, designer of the solar panels. The design life of the solar panels is up to 15 years, and they can work effectively for the space station project, Yu told Xinhua.

For informative videos on China’s station project from CCTV and the China National Space Administration (CNSA), go to:

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