The new colonial movement: Later this month, on April 29th, China will use its Long March 5B rocket to launch the first module of its space station, dubbed Tianhe, thus beginning the assembly over the next year or so of their first space station, with ten more launches planned in that short time span.
The T-shape, 100-metric-ton CSS [Chinese Space Station] will comprise three major modules: the 18-meter-long core module, called Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), and two 14.4-meter-long experiment modules, called Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), which will be permanently attached to either side of the core. As the station’s management and control center, Tianhe can accommodate three astronauts for stays of up to six months. Visiting astronauts and cargo spaceships will hook up to the core module from opposite ends. Both it and Wentian are equipped with robotic arms on the outside, and Mengtian has an airlock for the maintenance and repair of experiments mounted on the exterior of the station. Tianhe has a total of five docking ports, which means an extra module can be added for future expansion. The station is designed to operate for more than 10 years.
Much of the work on this station will be similar to the scientific research done on ISS. One additional science project linked to the station however is far more impressive:
China plans to launch a Hubble-size telescope that will operate in the same orbit a few hundred kilometers away. As a part of the CSS, the China Sky Survey Telescope (also called Xuntian) will have 300 times Hubble’s field of view and will address a wide range of science in the near-ultraviolet and optical wave bands. The observatory will investigate cosmology, the large-scale structure of matter in the universe, and galaxy and stellar science, as well as dark matter and dark energy. It is designed to dock with the space station for servicing if needed, offering an easy, fuel-efficient and “better way to engage astronauts to ensure the performance of the telescope,” Gu says.
That telescope will be the first general observatory optical telescope launched since Hubble. While western astronomers continue to build ground-based telescopes that have to peer squint-eyed through the atmosphere and also have to increasingly deal with giant satellite constellations, China has done the right thing, leaping off the Earth to do its astronomy above the atmosphere. It will still have those satellite constellations in its way, but building an orbital telescope merely paves the way for telescopes much farther out, free from any such interference.
Make no mistake. Though the Chinese are selling this station as just another space laboratory for research, its primary goal is really their first attempt to build an interplanetary space ship. It is very similar in concept to the Soviet Union’s Mir station, which from the start was conceived as exactly that, with the goal of later upgrades or follow-ons that would be able to leave Earth orbit.
China is not fooling around. They plan to use what they learn on CSS so that they can build that manned interplanetary ship, as soon as possible.
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