A few hours ago, the Chinese Tianhe module was launched from the Wenchang base atop a Long March 5B Y2 rocket. After about an hour, it successfully separated from the rocket’s last stage, deployed its solar panels, and reached its orbit. Over the next few days, its thrusters will be used to adjust the orbit to an altitude between 340 and 350 kilometers.
According to Chinese plans, the Tianhe module represents the core of the station and will be connected to at least two others, the Wentian and Mengtian laboratories, which are scheduled to be launched in 2022. These modules, and perhaps others to be added later, will form a space station significantly smaller than the International Space Station. For a period of at least 10 years, it will orbit at an altitude between 340 and 350 kilometers with an orbital inclination of 43° to allow crewed launches from the center of Jiuquan.
The Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is scheduled to be launched as early as May to provide the propellant needed to maintain a stable orbit along with supplies for the crew that will serve on the station. The first astronauts, or taikonauts, will be launched in June for the first of four crewed missions lasting six months each. 3 taikonauts are scheduled to reside on the station, and after it’s completed it will be possible to have 6 taikonauts in the crew turnover moments.
The Chinese space station is a national project that is part of the ambitious national space program. It represents a leap forward compared to the Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 space laboratories that were used in recent years to test the technologies needed to create a true modular space station.
China offered other nations the opportunity to collaborate in various ways. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) signed an agreement with China in 2017, but after the 2020 agreement to collaborate with NASA on the Artemis Moon program it remains to be seen what the Italian contribution to the Chinese space station will be.
Chinese authorities tend to limit the publicly provided information about their space missions. In this case, they decided to broadcast the launch live, but other high-profile missions had no television coverage. On their space station, the taikonauts will conduct experiments of various kinds, but it remains to be seen which and how many will be declared. There are many doubts about the future of the International Space Station after 2024, but with an operational Chinese space station, it’s easy to predict that the Americans will demand to maintain a fixed presence in orbit.