Tiangong Space Station
Artist’s concept of the Tiangong space station in late 2021 after the launch of the core module Tianhe. Credit: Shujianyang

Tiangong Space Station

26/07/2022Written by Dhara Patel

A guide to Tiangong, China’s first long term space station – a major step in the country’s crewed space programme.

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Space Stations have been around since the 1970s when the Soviet Union began to place their prototype Salyut stations in orbit around Earth. We might recall the impressive Soviet Mir space station that provided a home for first British astronaut Helen Sharman when she travelled to space in 1991. And many will have heard of the International Space Station (ISS) – perhaps humankind’s greatest feat of engineering. But the Chinese have been building a space station of their own called Tiangong and it has big plans.

Why has China built its own space station?

Why has China built its own space station?
The International Space Station, of which China is not a partner. Credit: NASA
Why has China built its own space station?
Thor Able rocket (left) inside the National Space Centre’s rocket tower – the first stage, Thor, was an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile developed by America to carry nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Credit: National Space Centre

In 2011, China was excluded from the ISS when the US banned NASA from engaging with China under the Wolf Amendment (a law passed by the United States Congress), following concerns raised in the Cox Report.  

This report, made public in 1999, raised concerns about the nature of China’s space programme outlining how technical information about satellite launches shared by American commercial satellite manufacturers with China might have been used to improve the country’s technology around intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

The Chinese government is notoriously secretive about the civil and military activities it conducts in space. But with the research, technology, and skills the Chinese continue to demonstrate, some view this continued block on cooperation as the US shooting themselves in the foot.  

Despite this China, Russia, and Europe all vowed to keep their cooperation in space open. So, while China doesn’t plan to use Tiangong as a globally cooperative project like the ISS, they have said that foreign collaboration is not off the table and have guaranteed participation from foreign astronauts following the completion of Tiangong. And Yang Liwei (China’s first taikonaut), mentioned paying visitors could travel to the space station later in the decade. 

 

Building the Tiangong Space Station

Building the Tiangong Space Station
Artist’s concept of the Tiangong space station once fully constructed. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
Building the Tiangong Space Station
Structure of the Tiangong space station. Credit: China State Media
Building the Tiangong Space Station
Artist’s concept of the Xuntian Space Station Telescope. Credit: Jaimito130805

Tiangong orbits between 340-450 km above the Earth’s surface, putting it around the same orbital height of the 400km-altitude ISS. It’s about one fifth the mass of the ISS and when complete it will be comparable in size to the smaller and now decommissioned Mir space station. 

Tianhe – the core module of the Tiangong space station was launched on 29 April 2021. This module consists of three sections: a habitational quarter where taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) can live, a non-habitable service section, and a docking hub – somewhere for arriving spacecraft to join to. 

Wentian – this additional module was launched on 24 July 2022. The first of two lab modules – it will also act as the backup of the core Tianhe module to control and manage the space station. Its airlock will serve as the main exit for future spacewalks, and it has a mechanical arm that will be used to help spacecraft relocate and redock. 

Mentian – the final module is due to launch in October 2022. This second lab module will have an airlock of its own for transportation of equipment. 

Xuntian Space Station Telescope – planned for launch in 2023, the two-metre mirrored telescope is expected to image up to 40% of the entire sky over ten years. It will orbit with the space station in a slightly different position, allowing it to periodically dock with Tiangong for refuelling and repair. 

Life onboard Tiangong

Life onboard Tiangong
CGI rendering of the Shenzhou spacecraft. Credit: China Manned Space Agency
Life onboard Tiangong
Crew of Shenzhou 13 in March 2022 on the Tianhe core module of Tiangong. Credit: Xinhua
Life onboard Tiangong
Video footage run by China's CCTV, showing Chinese astronauts delivering a lesson for children through a video link from Tiangong space station. Credit: CCTV via AP

Before Tiangong, there were Chinese prototypes space stations, rather confusingly called Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2. They served as crewed laboratories and an experimental testbed for China to hone their docking and rendezvous capabilities in space. 

Launched on the Chinese Long March 2F rocket, crew were ferried to space in a Shenzhou spacecraft – the Chinese equivalent to the Russian Soyuz or SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Capable of carrying three taikonauts, the longest crewed Chinese mission (to Tiangong-2) in 2016, lasted 30 days. 

On Tiangong, taikonauts are now spending six months in space but unlike the ISS crew, there is currently only space for three. When the space station is completed later in 2022, there will be the first crewed rotation, meaning for a short while there will be six taikonauts on board – three just arrived and three about to make their way back to Earth. This will mark the beginning of the continuous occupancy of a Chinese Space station. 

On board this twenty-first century outpost, crew wear bone conduction headphone and microphones, using the Wi-Fi network to easily communicate. They enjoy a variety of meals including fresh fruit and vegetables (stored in coolers) that are resupplied by Tianzhou cargo spacecrafts. They have a small kitchen and first-ever microwave oven and even enjoy condiments like pork sauce and Sichuan pepper sauce which help add taste to compensate for the changes in the sense experienced in microgravity. The core module, Tianhe, contains three separate sleeping compartments for the crew along with toilet, shower, and gym facilities.  

One of the novel features on Tiangong is regular space lectures designed to educate, inspire, and motivate the younger Chinese generation in science. 

A lesson with a scientific experiment is conducted, concluding with a Q&A session to answer students’ questions from the classroom. 

The China Manned Space Program

The China Manned Space Program
Taikonaut Yang Liwei coming out from his Shenzhou-5 spacecraft following his trip to space. Credit: Xinhua
The China Manned Space Program
An artist’s concept of Shenzhou 9 docking with the prototype space station Tiangong-1. Credit: Keith McNeill / Space Models Photography.
The China Manned Space Program
Tianhe core module before launch. Credit: China News Network

The China Manned Space Program (CMS) beginning in 1992 was designed to develop and enhance human spaceflight capabilities for the country. It was split into three phases: 

  • Crewed spacecraft launch and return – in 2003, taikonaut Yang Liwei launched on Shenzhou 5 becoming the first Chinese person to orbit the Earth.
  • Space laboratory with capabilities of extravehicular activities, space rendezvous and spacecraft docking procedures – continued spaceflight along with the successful deployment and testing with the prototype space stations Tiangong-1 (2011-2018) and Tiangong 2 (2016-2019).
  • Long term space station – construction of Tiangong is still ongoing. 

 With the CMS almost complete, China will look to use its established space station to aid larger scale and longer-term basis space exploration. 

China’s long-term goals and wider achievements

China’s long-term goals and wider achievements
Scientists from the Chinese National Space Administration opening the Moon sample returned by the Chang'e-5 spacecraft. Credit: Xinhua
China’s long-term goals and wider achievements
Selfie taken by the Chinese Zhurong rover (left) on Mars in 2021 beside its landing platform. It positioned a wireless camera on the ground and then drove back to take the photo. Credit: China National Space Administration
China’s long-term goals and wider achievements
Animation of China’s Long March 9 rocket currently in development. The heavy lift rocket will be China’s version of NASA’s Space Launch System with the aim of taking crew to the Moon and Mars. Credit: CCTV

There is already talk of extending Tiangong beyond its three planned modules to allow a broader range of activities in the future – more experiments and better living conditions for taikonauts. The space station is expected to last ten years and, in the future, there could be as many as six different modules (still considerably less than the ISS’s current 17 modules).  

Alike to NASA, the Chinese Space Agency have already opened up to the involvement of commercial companies to help find more efficient ways of transporting cargo and who knows, the role of commercial companies could expand to become even broader in years to come. 

Beyond crewed spaceflight, China have invested heavily in lunar exploration with their Chang’e program which saw Chang’e 5 return with samples from the Moon in 2020 – the first brought back since the Apollo era. The Tiangong space station program will significantly aid their plans to send the first taikonauts to the Moon by 2030, providing competition for NASA’s Artemis program.  

And although it was China’s first ever independent mission to Mars, they became only the third country to soft land on the planet in 2021 with Tianwen-1 and its Zhurong rover. China recently announced their plans to return samples from Mars by 2031 (two years earlier than the joint NASA/ESA mission) and are also aiming to send their first crewed mission to the red planet in 2033. 

With the ISS due to be decommissioned in 2031, we’re likely to see several private space stations develop in the coming years. It will be fascinating to see how they fair in comparison to Tiangong and with the Chinese space sector emerging as a real superpower, it looks like we’ll have a new twenty-first century space race to get the first humans to Mars.

About the author: Dhara Patel is a Space Expert at the National Space Centre.