Artist illustration of China’s planned Tiangong-2 space station now set to launch in 2016. Image credit: CMSE

Oct 23, 2014 China planning for next space station

Sen—China is definitely moving forward with plans to build and launch their own manned space station to low Earth orbit staring in 2016, confirmed China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, at a recent international planetary space conference in Beijing.

China’s space agency, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), approved a comprehensive program for the new space station project three years ago and is open to international participation. The Chinese station project will include the construction of several laboratory modules, cargo resupply vehicles, manned space capsules, new and more powerful rockets and a new launch base.

The first station element to launch will be the Tiangong-2 space module.

"China will launch the Tiangong-2 space lab in 2016,” said Yang in a speech to the 27th Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) at Beijing in mid September 2014. Yang is Deputy Director of China Manned Space Agency (CMSE) office and served as President of the Organizing Committee of the annual meeting.

The theme of the six day Congress was "Cooperation: To Realize Humanity's Space Dream Together." Nearly 100 astronauts from 18 nations participated in the conference according to CMSE.

Tiangong-2 is a follow up to the nation’s first prototype space lab,Tiangong-1.

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China’s planned Tiangong-2 space station now set to launch in 2016. Image credit: CMSE

China is also developing the unmanned Tianzhou cargo vehicle and the new CZ-7 carrier rocket to lift payloads more economically and efficiently. Tianzhou will be similar in function to the unmanned Russian Progress vessels, transporting essentials such as crew supplies, food, water, clothing, science experiments and station gear and parts.

China is also building a completely new launch base on the island of Hainan.

The new and far larger space station will be built piece by piece over several years. Its assembly manifest is clearly patterned after the successful MIR and International Space Station program predecessors.

After the successful launch of Tiangong-2, the program ramps up with the launches of the Shenzhou-11 manned spaceship with a three person crew of Chinese astronauts and the Tianzhou-1 cargo spaceship to dock with it, Yang elaborated.

As currently envisioned, the station will be comprised of the core lab module and two additional pressurized modules launched in later years with multiple docking ports, as well as solar panels and one or more robotic arms.

Overall it will take about six years to build the orbiting lab complex. "China will finish building the space station around 2022,” said Yang.

Chinese space officials say preparations are on track to meet the initial 2016 launch hardware target.

“Ever since China has started the project of manned space station three years ago, all the development and construction work have been carried out steadily,” said Niu Hongguang, Deputy Chief Commander of China Manned Space Program (CMSP), at the conference according to CMSE.

“All major flight products have entered a critical development and production stage. Preparations have been made for astronauts and relevant ground facilities to perform fight missions.”

“The core module of the space station and two experiment modules will be transferred to the development test stage for the flight product. The Hainan Launching Site has almost completed its construction and is ready to provide service now.”

Chinese space officials maintain that its space station program is open to international participation.

“China has reserved some platforms in its space station for cooperation with other countries. China has designed interfaces on its space modules so that they can dock with those of other countries,” said Yang.

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Space station configuration consists of a core module and two experiment modules. Image credit: CMSE

“China is willing to join hands with the international community to promote cooperation and exchanges, and contribute to the peaceful utilization of space and the improvement of space flight technology,” noted Niu.

Tiangong-1 was China’s first indigenously built manned lab module. It was launched on September 29, 2011 and still functions very well today after more than 1100 days in orbit.

The 8.5 ton Tiangong-1 measures 10.4 meters in length and 3.3 meters in diameter. It provides about 15 cubic meters of workspace. The Shenzhou manned spaceship is about 9.2 meters in length.

A pair of three person crews docked with Tiangong-1 in June 2012 and June 2013 on the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 flights for missions lasting approximately two weeks, and which included the first two female Chinese astronauts.

Both crews conducted science and technology experiments, lab and equipment checkouts and multiple dockings and redockings to practice and perfect these critical maneuvers. To date, China has launched five manned Shenzhou missions Long March 2F rocket, starting in 2003 with Yang Liwei on Shenzhou-5 on a 14 orbit, 21 hours long flight.

China thus became the third country to develop the capability to launch its own astronauts into space.

They have steadily upgraded the capabilities of Shenzhou over time to carry three person crews, increase the duration in orbit, conduct spacewalks and dock at orbiting space stations.

The big new space station marks China’s great leap forward in manned space flight that could potentially lead to a manned lunar mission in the 2020s.