Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China’s core space station module is now circling Earth, lofted April 29 by a Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the northeastern coast of south China’s Hainan Province.

Tianhe is the foundational module for China’s first low-Earth orbital space station named Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace” in Chinese. The module is 16.6 meters long with a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters and a takeoff mass of 22.5 tons – billed as the largest spacecraft China has ever developed.

China’s core module now in Earth orbit.

Fast-paced launch schedule

The launch is to be followed by a fast-paced series of cargo and crew launches aimed at completing the construction of the station by the end of 2022. The space-based construction effort requires 11 launches in 2021-2022, including Thursday’s successful launch of the core module, two more module launches, four manned missions and four cargo vessel flights, as reported by China Global Television Network (CGTN).

Three types of Long March carrier rockets will jointly conduct the remaining 10 launch missions.

When completed, China’s orbiting outpost will form a T-shape with Tianhe at the center and two lab capsules, Wentian and Mengtian, on each side, according to Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program. 

Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) said that the station could support at most six astronauts at the same time. Regular launches of crewed and cargo spaceships will secure a long-term human presence in Earth orbit to carry out research and services.

Credit: CMS

Crew and cargo

Shortly after the core module’s launch, Li Shangfu, chief commander, flight missions for space station phase of China’s manned space program reported the Long March-5B Y2 rocket had accurately sent Tianhe into a preset orbit, and that the solar panels were working well after unfolding. “Now I announce that the launch mission of the core module Tianhe is a complete success!”

Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told China Central Television (CCTV): “Next, we will launch Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft in May and the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft in June. Three astronauts will stay in orbit for three months on the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft.”

Hao said in September and October, the Tianzhou-3 cargo craft and Shenzhou-13 crewed spaceship will also be launched to dock with Tianhe, and another three astronauts will then begin their six-month stay in orbit.

After the five launch missions this year, China plans six missions, including the launch of the Wentian and Mengtian lab modules, two cargo spacecraft and two manned spaceships, in 2022 to complete the manufacturing of the space station.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

“It contains two space station modules, the launch mission of Wentian and Mengtian, two cargo spacecraft and two manned spacecraft. The two manned spacecraft, also composed of three astronauts respectively, will stay in orbit for about six months. This is the general arrangement of our missions,” Hao stated.

China’s space station is to operate in low-Earth orbit at an altitude from 211 miles (340 kilometers) to 280 miles (450 kilometers). It has a designed lifespan of 10 years, although it could last more than 15 years with appropriate maintenance and repairs, reports CCTV.

To view videos of the launch and an overview of China’s space station plans, go to:

Credit: China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA).

Credit: New China TV/China Manned Space Agency

Credit: CCTV

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