The International Space Station
What’s the News: On Monday, China unveiled its plan to build a manned space station in the next decade. This announcement comes from a space program whose development has been, well, skyrocketing; China launched its first astronaut into Earth orbit in 2003 and completed its first spacewalk in 2008. If things go as planned, the station would be the third ever multi-module space station, after Russia’s Mir and the International Space Station.
What’s the Plan:
- The space station is currently dubbed Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace,” but that moniker may not be permanent; China’s space agency is taking suggestions for new names via email.
- Designed for a three-person crew, the space station will consist of one core module and two lab units for conducting experiments in astronomy, biology (particularly as it pertains to space radiation), and microgravity.
- Weighing in at 60 tons, Tiangong is significantly smaller than its predecessors (the ISS weighs 419 tons; Mir weighed 137).
- Each module will have a maximum diameter of about 14 feet; the core module will be nearly 60 feet long, and the two lab modules will be around 47 feet.
- The space station’s core module will blast off first; the two lab modules will launch a while later, then dock with the core.
- Tiangong’s docking hardware will be compatible with the docking hardware on the ISS, which will enable craft from other countries to rendezvous with the space station. “Scientists of all countries are welcome to participate in space science experimental research on China’s space station,” Jiang Guohua, chief engineer at the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, told Space.com.
- To hone the necessary technologies, China will launch three test spacecraft over the next decade to test the station’s components: the Tiangong-1 module later this year, and the Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 space labs in 2013 and 2015. Tiangong-2 will be designed to support three astronauts for 20 days; Tiangong-3, for 40.
What’s the Context:
- As China’s manned spaceflight program expands, others are scaling back. NASA’s last space shuttle launch is set for June, and the ISS is set to operate only through 2020 (with a possible extension until 2028).
- Only two other space stations have been launched without international help: Russia’s Salyut and the US’s Skylab, both in the early 1970’s.
- Nothing, even in space, happens in a vacuum. One NASA advisor has called the project “a potent political symbol,” which would put China in a powerful—and autonomous—position in space.