China will launch six main missions by the end of the year to complete its Tiangong space station, which space officials say could soon connect with a powerful telescope and host international commercial and astronauts.
The details were revealed on an April 17th Press conferencewhich took place the day after return of the 13 astronauts from Shenzhou after their national record-breaking 182-day mission aboard the Tiangong Tianhe main module.
The six crucial missions will begin in May with a refueling mission followed by the six-month mission Shenzhou 14 manned flight in June, according to Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO).
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A second module, Wentian (“Ask for the Skies”), will reach Tianhe in orbit in July, followed by the third and final module, Mengtian (“Dream the Skies”), scheduled to launch in October.
The Tianzhou 5 cargo and Shenzhou 15 manned missions will be launched at the end of the year, when the Tiangong The station will host its first crew rotation with Shenzhou 14 astronauts welcoming newcomers aboard, thanks to extra accommodations in the Wentian module.
Once fully assembled, Tiangong will host six-month manned missions during which astronauts will conduct a series of experiments and awareness raising activities. The experiments will mainly focus on life sciences, microgravity research, astronomy, earth science, and new materials and space technology, Chinese space officials said.
The original plan, first established in 1992, calls for the three-module Tiangong station to house crews non-stop for 10 years. Two manned spacecraft and two cargo spacecraft would be launched each year.
The Xuntian space telescopewhich will co-orbit with Tiangong and be able to dock for refueling and maintenance, will launch in late 2023, according to Hao.
“The telescope will conduct frontier scientific research into the formation and evolution of the universe, dark matter and dark energy, exoplanets and solar system objects, and is expected to deliver a number of important groundbreaking discoveries,” said Hao.
However, the CMSEO is also looking to extend both the space station and the scope of its activities, while also introducing new ways to reach Tiangong.
“We are developing the extendable modules and cabins of the spacecraft to conduct more experiments and provide better living conditions for astronauts,” said Hao. Tiangong eventually could be enlarged with six modules, with the addition of new versions of Tianhe and the modules of the Wentian and Mengtian experiment, according to the previously declared expansion plans.
A reusable new generation launch vehicle and a new generation crew spaceship, capable of carrying up to seven astronauts, are also under development. Currently, China uses the Long march The 2F rocket and the Shenzhou spacecraft to launch its astronauts into orbit.
Tiangong could also host trade missions in the near future. “We will also actively explore new models of commercial human spaceflight and introduce commercial cargoes,” said Hao.
When asked about international cooperation, Hao said that China “will certainly engage in deeper exchanges and collaborations with all countries of the world engaged in the peaceful use of space.”
In March, Yang Liwei, who made history in 2003 by becoming the first Chinese astronaut to reach space, told media that untrained astronauts would be able to fly to Tiangong, perhaps before the end of the decade.
First, however, China must complete Tiangong. The next launch will be the Tianzhou 4 cargo mission. The 29,760-pound (13,500-kilogram) spacecraft will take off on a Long March 7 rocket from Wenchang and carry fuel and supplies for the Shenzhou 14 mission, which is scheduled to launch in June.
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