The central module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) is expected to take off this Thursday, April 29. About ten additional launches are already planned to complete assembly by the end of 2022.
The International Space Station (ISS) is the only space laboratory currently in orbit, but not for very long. China is in fact preparing to launch its own station, a project in the papers since 1992. Once completed, probably in 2022, the T-shaped structure will include three main modules: the central module 18 meters long, called “Tianhe”, and two 14.4 meter long experimental modules, called “Wentian” and “Mengtian”. It will be able to accommodate three astronauts (or taikonauts) for stays of up to six months.
The CSS weighs “only” 100 tonnes, or less than a quarter of the mass of the ISS, built in cooperation by some fifteen countries. However, this Chinese station does not aim to compete with its “big sister”. Gu Yidong, chief scientist of the China Manned Space program, points out that these three modules were designed with the aim of “meet only China’s need for science experiments“.
A station dedicated to research
The station will house fourteen refrigerator-sized science experiment racks, and a few general-purpose racks.
There will also be more than fifty mooring points designed to support experiments conducted outside the station. Space physiology, life sciences, fluid physics, materials science, astronomy or Earth observation… there will be many areas of research. So far, a around a hundred experiments have already been selected among more than 800 national proposals.
The station will also reserve space and resources for a number of international experiences. Tricia Larose, a medical researcher at the University of Oslo, will notably lead an experiment to test the effects of weightlessness on cancer growth, among other goals. To do so, the mission will rely on three-dimensional stem cell organoids, or “mini-colon”, from cancerous and healthy tissue from the same patient to study how DNA mutations are affected by microgravity.
China will launch a second call for proposals for international experiences. Scientists can also apply through institutional partnerships to access space station resources. Of course, there will be geopolitical obstacles. U.S. law, for example, does not allow scientists from the NASA to collaborate directly with China.
Remember also that China plans to launch a telescope similar to Hubble likely to operate in the same orbit as the station, but a few hundred kilometers away. It will also be designed to be able to connect to the station if necessary (maintenance / repair). Its launch is scheduled for 2024.