China launches first module of new, crewed, Tiangong-3 space station

Expected to host three astronauts for a decade, starting in 2022


China has placed the first module of a crewed space station in orbit.

Launched atop a Long March 5B rocket at around 03:30 AM UTC on Thursday, the “Tianhe” module is 16.6 meters long, 4.2 meters in diameter at its largest point, and weighed 22.5 tonnes on Earth. It is the largest spacecraft developed by China.

Tianhe includes living quarters and life support kit capable of sustaining three taikonauts, plus a dock for incoming spacecraft and the two other station modules China will launch later this year. Those modules will be joined at right angles, giving the habitable sections of the station a T-shape.

The extra modules are smaller than Tianhe and the fully assembled space station will be around a fifth the size of the International Space Station.

Comparisons to the ISS’ dimensions don’t bother China, which knows that it’s what you do with your space station that counts. The Middle Kingdom already has an array of experiments from its own boffins, and others devised by international collaborators, that it suggests will both advance its own capabilities and prove a boon for all of humanity.

China has already operated two space stations – Tiangong 1 and 2 - but they were prototypes not intended for ongoing habitation. Tiangong 1 hosted a crew for 15 days and Tiangong 2 doubled that to 30 days.

China plans to occupy the new station from 2022 into the foreseeable future, making it the only nation to currently have a space station all to itself (although Russia last week said it will launch its own real soon now, promise).

Tiangong-3 will of course also have – cough – strategic uses. But for now let’s celebrate the fact that in a few short months, humanity will have two permanently-occupied space stations.

It’s been a busy few days hours in space, with Arianespace conducting successful launches of a Soyuz craft on Monday and a Vega on Wednesday, and China sending up a Long March 6, with nine satellites aboard, on Tuesday. SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 and 60 Starlink satellites an hour or so after Tianhe’s launch, with a booster it used for a seventh time, then landed safe and sound on a droneship. ®

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