What is the Tianhe Core Module

The Tiangong-3, or simply Tiangong space station, is currently under in orbit assembly. It is expected to be finished by the end of this year 2022. The work on the space station began with the launch of the Tianhe, the main core module of the station and the most important part of it. ‘Tianhe’ in Chinese, roughly translates to ‘Harmony of the Heavens’.

Purpose and Mission of the Tianhe spacecraft

The 54-foot-long (16.6 meters) module is the first space station component to launch. It will be joined in low Earth orbit later by two slightly smaller elements, forming a T-shaped space station. The 54-foot-long (16.6 meters) module, known as Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), is the first space station component to launch. It will be joined in low Earth orbit later by two slightly smaller elements, forming a T-shaped space station that China aims to complete by the end of 2022. (More on the success of China’s space program here.)

Launch of the Tianhe core module

China has long had its sights set on establishing its own space station in low-Earth orbit. The country, which is not an International Space Station partner, has spent the last few decades making preparations, even launching two space labs — Tiangong-1 in 2011 and Tiangong-2 in 2016. Though both space stations were eventually destroyed upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, they provided critical information for future modules that would form a much larger space station.

China began laying the foundation for the Tianhe a decade ago. In September 2011, the nation launched a prototype space lab called Tiangong 1, to continue building its human spaceflight skill set and test the technologies needed to assemble and maintain a large space station in Earth orbit.

China launched a second space lab, Tiangong 2, in September 2016. The next month, Shenzhou 11 sent three astronauts to Tiangong 2, and this time they stayed aboard for a month.

Tianhe was finally launched on April 29, 2021. The 24-ton space station blasted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the Chinese island of Hainan aboard a Long March 5B rocket. Tianhe — which means “harmony of the heavens” — is literally the core of China’s space station. As the foundational module, it will provide life support and living quarters for the 3 crewmembers. It will also host a control center and docking hub, which will allow Tianhe to link with yet-to-be-launched science modules, Mengtian and Wentian.

China’s Motivation to build their own space station

China’s five-year-old space agency was viewed as too young and inexperienced to offer any useful contributions to the International Space Station. Soon after the Chinese developed their own space stations and sent astronauts to space to visit them, it became clear that this wasn’t the case. trust issues would become the source of the United States’ unwillingness to work with China on the International Space Station. Even today, China isn’t allowed to visit the International Space Station. (More on China’s Space Station Tiangong here.)

Future missions to the Tianhe core module

Initial crewed missions to Tiangong, including its first mission Shenzhou 12 which lasted the planned 90 days, use the Shenzhou spacecraft. Subsequent missions starting with Shenzhou 13 will last a planned 180 days, this will then become the normal mission duration at Tiangong. Tianzhou (Heavenly Vessel), a modified derivative of the Tiangong-1 spacecraft, will be used as robotic cargo spacecraft to resupply this station. The launch mass of Tianzhou is expected to be around 13,000 kg with a payload of around 6,000 kg. (More on the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft here)

When it’s up and running, the Chinese Space Station will be just 20% as massive as the International Space Station (ISS), which would tip the scales at about 460 tons here on Earth. And, whereas the ISS routinely accommodates six or seven astronauts at a time, China’s version is expected to host three-person crews. Once completed, it will be the only other active station in space on such scale, and China becoming one of the only countries to have an operational space station up and running independently.  The Tiangong is designed to be used for 10 years which could be extended to 15 years and will accommodate three astronauts long term at a time. (More on China’s manned missions and Shenzhou program here.)

China also plans to launch a powerful space telescope in 2024 . The observatory will occupy an orbit similar to that of the space station, Chinese officials have said, allowing the scope to be refuelled, upgraded and maintained relatively efficiently. 

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