China launches core module for new space station: What you need to know

Tianhe, the foundational module of the new Chinese space station, is now in orbit.

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The core module of the Chinese Space Station is being built in low Earth orbit


Tianhe, the core module in China's new, next-generation  space station, launched to orbit on April 28, kickstarting 18 months of construction in low-Earth orbit. Slated for completion in late 2022, the space base is designed as a scientific research outpost for China over the next decade.

Provided the launch and the build all go to plan, the station will become the 12th object humans have called home in orbit, since Russia's Salyut 1 in 1971. It will also become the only other operational space habitat outside of the International Space Station.

To the heavens

Why is China building a space station? Space science and human spaceflight capabilities, mostly, with a healthy side of geopolitics.

China has been barred from participating in missions to the ISS since 2011, after the US Congress passed a law preventing American contact with the Chinese space program, citing "national security" concerns. 

In September of that same year, China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1, which operated for a touch over four years before its service was ended. China's space program conceded it lost control of the station in early 2016 and, two years later, it came crashing down, landing in the Pacific Ocean. A follow-up station, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016 and deliberately deorbited in 2019. Both provided a test bed for the Chinese space station launching in April. 

When complete, the CSS will be a quarter of the size of the International Space Station and contain three modules, with the ability to support three taikonauts -- Chinese astronauts -- for stays lasting up to six months. The station is expected to orbit at around 230 miles above the Earth, about 20 miles lower than the ISS, with the ability to move up and down in orbit as necessary.

The payload fairing being ejected.

CCTV Video News Agency

Science in space

The core module, Tianhe, is approximately 55 feet long and weighs in at around 24 tons. Its chief purpose is to provide a living space and life support for taikonauts visiting the station. There is a backup module that can be flown in the event of a launch failure or problem, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist documenting the Chinese space program.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, China will fly 11 missions to construct the station in orbit. Eventually, Tianhe will be joined by two other modules, Wentian and Mengtian, where scientific research will take place. The laboratories will be kitted out with a range of "racks," allowing experiments in material science, biotech, fluid physics and life sciences to be undertaken by station taikonauts. 

The station will feature five docking ports, allowing resupply missions and crewed flights in the future. The third mission will be the first crewed mission to the station.

The China Manned Space Agency, along with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs will also allow international experiments to fly on the CSS. Several experiments will look out at space and investigate phenomena like nebula and gamma-ray bursts. Others will examine how spaceflight conditions might affect DNA in cancerous organoids and bacterial growth.

The station's construction was delayed slightly by a 2017 launch failure of the Long March 5B rocket, but China expects to complete the CSS by the end of 2022. 

Watch the Tianhe launch 

The Tianhe core module departed from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, China, on top of a Long March 5B rocket at 8:23 p.m. PT on April 28.  

China's space agency is typically extremely quiet about its launches, but not this time. There were some livestream options available on YouTube. Chinese state media services, like CGTN, also ran special programming approximately an hour before launch, too.

A livestream replay can be found below:

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