For nearly two decades, China has expressed a strong willingness to participate in the International Space Station (ISS). In each case, China’s initiatives were blocked by the United States government, and in 2011 the US took a hard line by forcing Congress to pass a law banning NASA or any American organization, for that matter, from having any connection with Chinese space. programs for reasons of national security. From that moment on, anyone who considered space cooperation with China had their hands tied.
Well, China had enough too. If they don’t cut us down, we’ll build our own space station, the Chinese must have thought – and they did. That being said, let’s learn more about Tiangong, or “Palace in the Sky”, China’s first long-term space station.
What is Tiangong?
As part of a larger and very ambitious manned space program, Tiangong is a space station built and launched exclusively by China into low Earth orbit at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (210 to 280 miles) above the Earth. After the installation of the last module in October 2022, the space station will consist of three main modules arranged in a “T” pattern. It is a tried and tested modular design that has worked well on the ISS so far. Three Chinese astronauts, or “taikonauts” as they are known in their country, have been on full-time duty in the Tianhe main module since 2021.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) regularly conducts science experiments on the space station, but Tiangong’s ultimate goal is to provide invaluable information that will help China make the leap to manned missions to the Moon and possibly even Mars.
Tiangong is not China’s first space station. Tiangong-1 was China’s first prototype space station to orbit the Earth from 2011 to 2018, followed by Tiangong-2 from 2016 to 2019. These projects have demonstrated China’s ability to perform autonomous orbital rendezvous and dockings, as well as manned space flights. On June 16, 2012, China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, docked with Tiangong 1 along with two other astronauts. China’s longest manned space mission lasted 30 days during the Tiangong 2 mission in 2016.
How big is Tiangong?
When completed, the three Tiangong modules will have a combined mass of about 100 tons, about a fifth of the mass of the ISS and at about the same level as the now defunct Soviet module. World space station that deorbited in 2001. It will be 20 meters long and accommodate three people in a living space of 110 cubic meters.
What are Tiangong modules?
Tiangong consists of three main modules. The first, known as Tianhe, or Harmony of Heaven, was launched on April 29, 2021 aboard the Long March 5B rocket and is the centerpiece of the main space station. The bus-sized Tianhe is responsible for providing all the basic functions of the space station, including life support, navigation, and even propulsion. Here the taikonauts spend most of their time, as their living quarters are located here.
The second module was launched on July 24, 2022. Wentian, or “Heavenly Quest”, is a laboratory module designed for scientific experiments. It is also the module through which the taikonauts leave the station for spacewalks. Outside the hull, there are various smaller modules and stations where external experiments can be carried out.
Mengtian, or Heavenly Dream, is the third and final Tiangong module. It should be launched this year, in October, from the Wenchang space center in southern China. Mengtian will host a number of scientific rooms for conducting a wide range of experiments. It also has a payload airlock, allowing the station’s small robotic arm to take scientific payloads and place them on a platform outside the module.
In total, the space station will include 14 internal racks for experiments and about 50 external ports for space research.
A set of 30-meter solar panels installed at Wentian and Mengtian provide most of the station’s power, along with smaller 18-meter arrays that branch off from Tianhe.
An automated cargo spacecraft called “Tianzhou” or, you guessed it, “Skyship” is responsible for transporting large payloads up to 6500 kg to the station. It can carry pressurized, semi-pressurized, and non-pressurized cargo, and can also carry pressurized cargo, large extra-vehicular payloads, and experimental platforms.
Tiangong vs. ISS
Tiangong only has three modules compared to ISS’s 16 modules. This means there is much more room for the crew to live and work on the ISS, which typically has a crew of 6 but could theoretically accommodate up to 13 astronauts on board.
However, the assembly of the ISS took more than 10 years and 30 missions. It is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between 15 different countries and five space agencies, while the Tiangong is produced exclusively by one country and must be fully assembled within one year.
The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998. Initially, the ISS was designed for 15 years, but it lived up to all expectations. According to NASA, the ISS will be officially decommissioned and de-orbited in 2031.
This means that most of the equipment aboard the ISS is quite old and dated, while everything on Tiangong is spotlessly clean and technologically advanced. This side-by-side comparison of the interiors of the ISS and China’s Tiangong is quite striking.
China wants to operate Tiangong for at least a decade and is keen to be open to international cooperation with both foreign space agencies and private companies.
This could well mean that in just a couple of years, Tiangong could be the only space station left in Earth orbit after the ISS crashes and burns up on Earth.
What Tiangong means for China’s growing space program
Tiangong represents an important stepping stone on China’s path to becoming a space power capable of rivaling or even surpassing the United States. China’s National Space Administration wants to use its space station for a number of additional space missions. For example, Tiangong is expected to refuel China’s upcoming Xuntian space telescope, which will have a field of view 300 times wider than that of the Hubble telescope and is scheduled to launch next year.
Between 2016 and December 2021, China launched 207 space missions, including Chang’e-5, which brought back samples from the Moon, and Tianwen-1, which went into orbit around Mars. China also aims to settle on the moon in the relatively near future, as early as the next five years, and even wants to build a lunar outpost in the next decade. China also wants to return samples from the asteroid and study the comet as part of the planned ZhengHe mission.
How to see the Tiangong space station
Like the ISS, Tiangong is actually visible to the naked eye – if you know exactly where to look. Websites such as n2yo.com show the space station’s current location above Earth in real time, as well as its estimated path ten days ahead. However, keep in mind that these forecasts are very similar to weather forecasts – the more days ahead you try to predict movement, the more likely it is that the position will be inaccurate. This is because the station is constantly falling to Earth and must periodically turn on its boosters to get back up to the correct altitude, thus affecting its precise path.
Tiangong revolves around the Earth in 91 minutes. You won’t be able to see it during the daytime, but if you’re lucky enough to be right under the Chinese space station at night and you’re in a dark place away from bright city lights, you might be able to make out a tiny, fast-moving spark of light trailing across the sky.