China has hinted that its new space station could launch into orbit later this year, sooner than previously thought, on a commercial-grade rocket that is designed to be more affordable than private rocket launch companies such as SpaceX.
Xinhua News Agency, the official state-run press agency of the People’s Republic of China, reported on Monday that the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) will send the core module of the now-in-development Chinese Space Station (CSS) to the launch site at Wenchang Space Launch Center in the second half of this year to prepare for the space station missions. The CSS had been expected to launch during 2020.
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALVT), confirmed Tuesday that it would test the new Long March-5B heavy-lift rocket in the first half of 2019, making the launch of the CSS later in 2019 much more likely. China’s current space station, Tiangong-2 space lab, was launched in 2016 and is due to be de-orbited in the second half of 2019. However, the CSS is designed to last for at least a decade.
What is Long March-5B and why is it so significant?
Long March-5B is a variant of the Long March 5 (which failed in July 2017), China’s most powerful yet, and part of its new ‘Dragon Series’ of rockets. According to CALVT, it will now take its first maiden flight in the first half of 2019, which makes it highly possible that it’s second or third launch later in 2019 could modules of the CSS into orbit, which would be earlier than expected. Named Smart Dragon-1 (SD-1), it’s designed specifically for launching the four manned spaceflights to enable astronauts to build the CSS. However, China wants in on the lucrative commercial rocket launch business and intends to make the Long March-5B rocket available to private companies to launch single or multiple satellites. Not surprisingly, CALVT claims that the yet-to-be-tested rocket will make it cheaper for companies to send payloads into orbit compared to similar rockets in the international market, such as SpaceX. CALVT also claims that each rocket takes just six months to produce and only 24 hours to prepare for a launch.
How big will the CSS be?
Though smaller than the International Space Station, CSS will have a main cabin called Tianhe-1 (Milky Way), which was shown off last year, and two laboratory modules. While six and occasionally seven astronauts can live on the ISS, only three will be able to stay simultaneously on the CSS. China intends to finish building the CSS by 2022.
Will the CSS be for Chinese astronauts only?
No. Last year the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA) invited applications from any country to conduct experiments on-board the CSS from 2022 onwards. “China is committed to making the country’s space station an international platform for scientific and technological cooperation, according to the CMSEO,” reports the Xinhua News Agency. Meanwhile, for the initial missions, astronauts are currently being recruited and trained, with drills and tests scheduled for the second half of 2019.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes