Chinese Space Station
- Mass: 70~80 t
- Class: Earth orbiting
- Discipline: Crewed space station
- Orbit: LEO (400-450 km)
- Launch: ~2020
- Core module - The central structure of the future Chinese manned space station. More...
- Experiment module I - Laboratory module and a back-up control centre. More...
- Experiment module II - Laboratory module. More...
- Shenzhou - Earth-orbiting human capsule capable of carrying three astronauts. More...
- Cargo vehicle - Unmanned cargo capsule for resupplying the space station. More...
Associated launch sites
- Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre - China's oldest and largest space centre in the northwest. More...
- Hainan Satellite Launch Site - China’s fourth space launch facility located in Wenchang, Hainan. More...
Associated launch vehicles
- Changzheng 5 - China’s next-generation heavy-lift launch vehicle system, 25 t payload to LEO and 14 t payload to GTO. More...
- Changzheng 7 - China’s new-generation medium-lift launch vehicle. 13.5 t payload to LEO and 5.5 t payload to GTO. More...
Early design of the space station
CG images displayed during a recent exhibition revealed a modified design with larger solar wings
Later design with larger solar wings
Later design of the space station
From its beginning, the Project 921 human space flight programme was set the goal of constructing an 80-tonne-mass permanently-manned space station in low Earth orbit. The human space flight missions onboard the Shenzhou capsule and the subsequent EVA and rendezvous docking experiment missions were not standalone projects, but integral parts of the 30-year plan to achieve this goal. The space station is expected to be completed by 2020.
Although the design of the future manned space station has yet been finalised, the station was estimated to be in the range of 60 to 80 metric tonnes, roughly the same size as the NASA Skylab launched in the 1970s. The station will be operating in a 400-450 km low Earth orbit, with an inclination of 42°- 43°. The station can support a crew of 3 people to live in orbit and carry out scientific experiments and other missions, with a service life of 10 years.
The Chinese space station will adopt a modular design, with a 20-tonne-mass core module being the central part of the structure. The core module will provide the main living quarter for the onboard crew and also serve as the main flight control and management centre for the entire station. EVA astronauts can exit and re-enter the module via an airlock onboard the module.
Two robotic arms (a primary with 25,000 kg capacity and a secondary) mounted on the core module will be able to move equipment and supplies around the station and capture other modules and visiting spacecraft vehicles to berth with the core module. The module is powered by four xenon gas ion thrusters.
The module will be attached with a docking hub with five free docking ports, through which various additional modules and spacecraft vehicles can be attached. The two lateral docking ports (Y-axis) on the docking hub will be occupied by two experiment modules designed to accommodate scientific research and experiment instruments and equipment. The two modules will be similar in size and mass, but with slightly different functions. One of the modules will also be equipped with a secondary flight control and management system in case of a malfunction in the main control system on the core module.
A Shenzhou human capsule is docked with the space station on the free X-axis docking port on the docking hub during the crew visit. A second X-axis docking port at the other end of the core module can be used to accept resupply from a cargo vehicle. Both vehicles will need to use V-bar approach to dock with the space station.
Once the space station is permanently manned, in addition to the visiting Shenzhou spacecraft, a second Shenzhou spacecraft will need to be docked with the station permanently to serve as a 'lifeboat'. This most likely will use one of the two free Z-axis docking ports.
Second core module?
A Chinese newspaper reported in November 2012 that during the operational phase of the space station programme, a second core module may be launched to dock on the x-axis port on the docking hug, expanding the station from a 'T-shape' configuration to a 'cross-shape' configuration.
According to a 2012 presentation by the deputy director of the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA), Yang Liwei, China’s first man in space, during its construction phase the space station will be visited by astronauts once or twice a year depending on the mission requirement. The visiting astronauts will conduct some EVA to help assemble and maintain the station. The station will also be resupplied by the cargo vehicle once or twice a year. During the operational phase of the mission, the space station will be permanently manned by a crew of three astronauts, who will alternate every six months. This will require regular launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft twice a year.
China will need to make breakthroughs in a number of key technologies before it can go ahead to build the space station.
Heavy-lift launch vehicle
Currently the maximum LEO payload capability of the Chinese launch vehicle is around 8,000kg, which will not be sufficient to place the space station modules into orbit. CALT is currently developing the next-generation CZ-5 heavy-lift launch vehicle with a maximum payload capacity of 25,000 kg to LEO when launched from the Hainan Satellite Launch Site. This will allow the core module and two experiment modules to be launched and then assembled in orbit. The first flight of the CZ-5 is expected to take place around 2014.
Robotic arm system
The Chinese space station will be fitted with a robotic arm system similar to Canadarm 2 of the International Space Station for berthing space station modules and visiting spacecraft vehicles. The system will include a primary arm with a payload capacity of 25 t, and a smaller secondary arm.
China is said to be planning to launch an experimental spacecraft to test the robotic arm system, with no confirmed launch date.
Water recycling and oxygen generation technologies
The water recycling and oxygen generation system is essential for long-term orbital living. China has yet developed an operational system but relevant technologies were tested on the Tiangong 1 experimental space laboratory. During the first crewed visit mission Shenzhou 9 in 2011, the crew produced drinkable water recycled from their urine, though they didn’t drink the water and only carried samples back to Earth for analysis.
Long-term orbital living
Living in a confined space in orbit for a prolonged period of time can have significant effects on the crew both physically and psychologically. The longest time that Chinese astronauts have stayed in space is 12 days, during the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2011. The planned Tiangong 2 space laboratory may be able to support crew staying up to several weeks.
Astronauts selection and training
All of China’s existing astronauts were selected from military pilots and their training was very much focused on ‘piloting’ the Shenzhou spacecraft. However, to maximise the benefits of the future space station as a scientific research and experiment platform, there need to be ‘scientist-astronauts’ as payload specialists in future crews.
A space physics programme known as the Cosmic Lighthouse Programme will use the space station as a platform for deep space observation and space physics experiments. The aim of the programme is to study the use of space X-ray burst for spacecraft navigation and the detection of black hole, dark matters, dark energy, and the origins of the Universe, celestial objects and extra-terrestrial life. The programme will include at least two packages, a large-scale imaging and spectroscopic survey facility and an instrument package known as HERD for detecting dark matter properties, high-energy electrons and gamma-rays.
Last updated: 5 March 2013