Wednesday, 12 May, 2021

Timeline: Key milestones in China's space station project

Liftoff of the Long March 5B rocket carrying the Tianhe core module for the Chinese Space Station Liftoff of the Long March 5B rocket carrying the Tianhe core module for the Chinese Space Station. Credit CCTV framegrab
Cecil Davis | 29 April, 2021, 10:08

Minutes after the launch, the fairing opened to expose the Tianhe atop the the core stage of the rocket, with the characters for "China Manned Space" emblazoned on its exterior. According to NASA, the first components can not be brought into space until 2024 at the earliest.

The core module, named Tianhe, was carried into space by a Long March-5B Y2 carrier rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of south China's Hainan Province. The launch could take place as early as Thursday evening April 29, 2021 if all goes according to plan.

China begins another giant stride in its space exploration efforts as it starts to piece together its own space station called Heavenly Harmony with the launch of initial modules on Thursday to begin the delicate process.

The missions will be the first three of 11 launches across 2021 and 2022 to build the planned 66-ton, three-module orbital outpost.

Another Chinese program aims to collect soil from an asteroid, a key focus of Japan's space program.

Another 10 launches will send up two more modules where crews will conduct experiments, four cargo supply shipments and four missions with crews. It docked with Tiangong-1 two days later, where the three astronauts lived and worked for almost two weeks, a milestone effort in acquiring some technological and logistical skills and experience in running a space station.

China is aiming to have its space station fully operational by next year and its expected lifetime is around 15 years, the programme's planners have said. Tianhe will have a docking port and can also communicate with a powerful Chinese space satellite. Theoretically, it could be expanded to as many as six modules.

Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.

Thousands of anti-lockdown activists march through central London
Shoppers flocked to high streets and drinkers downed pints as coronavirus restrictions were lifted in England on April 12th. A video posted by a protestor showed the tense scenes between police and demonstrators at Hyde Park yesterday.

China has launched two test units in the past decade in preparation for a permanent installation. The first, Tiangong-1, which means "Heavenly Palace-1", was abandoned and burned at the uncontrolled loss of the path.

September 15, 2016: Tiangong-2 was launched.

"We did not intend to compete with the ISS in terms of scale", Gu Yidong, chief scientist of the China Manned Space program, was quoted as saying by Scientific American. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.

The European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China to receive training in order to be ready to work inside the Chinese space station once it is launched. It was the third country to do so independently after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

It has also strengthened its cooperation with space experts from other countries, including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. NASA must obtain permission from reluctant Congress to participate in such communications. In December, its Chang'e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the USmissions of the 1970s. Its Zhurong rover will be looking for evidence of life.

China plans another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. No timeline has been proposed for such projects.

How competitive is the China program? It had major setbacks, including the Chang Zeng 5 or Long March 5 rocket that failed due to an engine problem.

Critics say the Chinese space program has successfully reproduced the achievements of the United States and Russian Federation without opening new heights. The country's growing technological prowess could put an end to such conversations in the coming years.