China aims to have its first space station up and running by next year.
Construction of the orbiting habitat—dubbed Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese—began in April, when a Long March 5B rocket delivered the core module into low Earth orbit. Plans call for more modules to be placed into orbit over the next 12 months, with successive crews aboard the station conducting a series of tests and spacewalks to manage the assembly.
When completed, Tiangong will weigh about 150,000 pounds and be roughly one-sixth the size of the International Space Station, a 900,000-pound craft that over the past two decades has hosted over 200 astronauts from more than a dozen countries. Tiangong will have a large robotic arm for construction and maintenance, and there are plans for a powerful space telescope, which will remain in proximity to the station.
Tiangong is seen as a centerpiece of China’s increasingly ambitious space program, which in recent years has notched a number of remarkable achievements—including the successful landing of a rover on Mars in May.
Construction of Tiangong comes a decade after national security concerns led the U.S. to bar the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from working with China and China-based companies, effectively shutting off Chinese astronauts from the ISS. Although it is being built solely by China, a number of other nations have signed on to fly experiments aboard Tiangong. China hasn’t revealed how much the station will cost to build or to operate.
Tiangong’s core module—Tianhe, or “Harmony of the Heavens” in Chinese—is now orbiting at an altitude of about 250 miles. In 2022, two more modules are to be launched to the budding outpost: Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), both of which will house scientific experiments.
The ISS has a large robotic arm, and so will Tiangong. China says the arm will be used for cargo handling, station maintenance and to help control docking of spacecraft—though the U.S. Space Command warned Congress earlier this year that the technology could also be deployed as a tool for attacking satellites.
China’s answer to the Hubble Space Telescope is scheduled for launch in 2024. The Chinese Space Station Telescope—also known as Xuntian, or “Survey the Heavens” in Chinese—will survey and photograph the universe using its 2-meter-diameter lens and a 2.5-billion-pixel camera. The telescope will orbit near Tiangong so that it can be maintained and refueled.
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