China begins tests for launch of space station module on Long March-5B rocket

Liu Zhen

China will press on with work on a permanent space station after the core module and carrier rocket for the vehicle arrived at the launch site for rehearsals and preparation, the developer said on Tuesday.

The Tianhe module was recently transported to the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on the southern Chinese island of Hainan for three months of trials with a Long March-5B rocket, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) said on its WeChat social media account.

The trials were designed to simulate the launch procedure, test the rocket and the operation of the module, with the goal of “laying a solid foundation for the formal mission”.

China’s next-generation manned spaceship – a successor to the Shenzhou series that first went into orbit in 1999 – would go straight into pre-launch preparations as the payload for the 5B’s first carrier mission in the first half of this year, CASC said.

That would be an unmanned operation, it said, without revealing a date for the launch.

The space station was originally planned to be completed by this year, but the Tianhe module is now expected to be launched in 2021 on a 5B rocket.

Once complete, Tianhe and its other modules will form the only alternative to the International Space Station, from which China has been excluded by the United States.

China’s space programme gets back on track with successful rocket launch

The 16.6-metre (54-foot) long and 4.2-metre diameter Tianhe weighed 22 tonnes and would serve as the station’s control centre and crew quarters, CASC said.

Two cabins about the same size as the core will be sent into orbit and attached to form a “T” configuration. There will also be two docking ports for cargo ships and passenger vehicles.

The spacecraft is expected to be in operation for 15 years, with a crew of three every six months. To ease handovers, it has been designed to support as many as six people for up to 10 days.

In comparison, the ISS, launched in 1998 and expected to be in service until 2030, can regularly accommodate a crew of six.

With a capacity of six people, the new reusable spaceship can accommodate double the number of crew on the Shenzhou series, together with 500kg (1,100lbs) of payload. It will be able to shuttle passengers to and from the station in low Earth orbit, and also carry out some deep space operations.

The long-anticipated space station project was late because of the delays in the development of heavy lift rockets to carry the modules. In 2017, the Long March-5 suffered a failure and a string of cancellations or delays, but at the end of last month it carried a Shijian-20 satellite into orbit.

The China National Space Administration launched two space stations – Tiangong 1 in 2011 and Tiangong 2 in 2016. The experimental platforms, described as space laboratories, fell from orbit and burned in Earth’s atmosphere in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

China’s ambitions include a Mars probe and landing astronauts on the moon within the next decade. With the rocket programme back on track, a series of launches is expected to follow.

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