China launched three astronauts to its Tiangong space station for what will be the first in-orbit crew rotation in Chinese space history. The space station ties into China’s grand ambitions to become a spacefaring superpower that can rival the likes of the United States and Russia, and maybe even surpass them. Here are five facts you need to know about Tiangong, named after the Chinese word for “heavenly palace” or “celestial palace.”
The Chinese space station has three modules—the Tianhe core module (“heavenly river” crew module and the laboratory cabin modules Wentian (“quest for heavens”) and Mengtian (“dreaming of heaven”).
Tianhe was the first module of the space station to be launched and was launched into orbit on April 29, 2021. This core module contains living quarters for three crew members and provides much of the space station’s key functions including power, propulsion, guidance, navigation and life support systems. The Tianhe module also has a “Chinarm” robotic arm.
The Wentian science module provides added navigation, propulsion and orientation controls to act as a backup for functions on Tianhe. It also serves as a pressurised environment for researchers to conduct zero-gravity experiments. Further science experiments can be placed on the outside of this module, like experiments that measure the effects of exposure to cosmic rays, solar winds and other space conditions. It also has a robotic arm dubbed the “Indexing arm.” Wentian launched and docked with the Tianhe module on July 24, 2022.
As per the South China Morning Post, Mengtian, the third and final component of the Tiangong space station, is designed mainly for science experiments. Mengtian carried many cutting-edge physics experiments on board when it launched, including a facility that can create the coldest matter in the universe. Mengtian launched into orbit and docked with the Tiangong space station on November 3, 2022.
The International Space Station (ISS) program’s members include the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and ten member states of the European Space Agency including Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland and the UK. But one global space superpower is conspicuous by its absence—China.
This is because of the Wolf Amendment, which was passed by the United States Congress in 2011. The amendment prevents NASA from cooperating with the Chinese government and government-affiliated government organisations without authorisation from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the US Congress.
A 2015 report by the American government’s US-China Economic and Security Review Commission clearly outlines the reason for this move by the country, summarising it thus, “China’s efforts to use its space program to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power may come at the expense of U.S. leadership and has serious implications for U.S. interests.”
The report states that the Chinese space program could seriously threaten the United States’ primacy in space affairs and its geopolitical interests.
Tiangong is almost minuscule compared to the (ISS). Where ISS is equipped with 16 modules, Tiangon only has three modules. Reuters reports that Tiangong weighs about 66 tons after completion, while ISS weighs around 450 tons.
But at the same time, the International Space Station’s first module was launched in 1998 and it took over 10 years and 30 missions to complete it. The Tiangong space station’s Tianhe core module was launched in April 2021 and its third module was launched in October 2022, meaning that the space station was completed in a span of about 18 months from its first launch.
This is especially impressive considering the fact that China only had its first manned space mission in 2003 when former fighter pilot Yang Liwei was sent into orbit in the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft.
According to BBC, China is just the third country in the world to both put astronauts into space and launch a space station after the United States and Russia (Soviet Republic at the time). But the country’s ambitions do not end there. The completion of the Tiangong space station will be a staging ground for its larger ambitions to explore the solar system and beyond.
A whitepaper released by the country’s State Council Information Office in 2021 clearly outlines its space exploration plans for the time leading up to 2025. It begins with a statement from Chinese president Xi Jinping, “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream.”
In the years leading up to 2025, China plans to “complete key technological research” on collecting and returning samples from Mars and on exploring the Jupiter system. It also plans to follow up on the success of the Chang’e-5 lunar probe with the launch of Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7. Lunar probes. Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7 are aimed at collecting and bringing back samples from the polar regions of the Moon.
While it won’t be a part of the Tiangong space station, China’s planned Xuntian space telescope will co-orbit with Tiangong, albeit with a slightly different orbital phase. According to Chinese state media organisation Xinhua, Xuntian will be a “bus-sized” facility with the length of a three-storied building.
It will be a bit smaller than the Hubble Space Telescope but its field of view will be 350 times that of Hubble in terms of the area it covers. During normal operations, the telescope will orbit separately from the space station to avoid issues like vibration, contamination and line-of-sight obstruction. But it will be designed in such a way that it can dock with the space station when necessary for fuelling and servicing. According to Xinhua, Xuntian is expected to be launched in 2023.