Astronauts from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are preparing to partake in four crewed missions this year, the Associated Press has reported.
The station’s core module, Tianhe, could be launched as early as April, according to the CNSA and international observers. Last month, the heavy-lift Long March-5B Y2 and its payload were moved into place at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan Province. Assembly and testing work is continuing on the launch vehicle.
The launch will mark the first of 11 CNSA missions over the next two years to finish constructing the space station by the end of 2022. Two more modules; four Tianzhou cargo supply missions, and four Shenzhou crewed missions will be launched following the core module launch. The core module also has docking stations to permit the attachment of modules for experimentation at a later stage.
The CNSA has released details of 12 astronauts now in training for these missions, including men, women, newcomers and Shenzhou veterans. Up to three astronauts at a time will live in the core module. The space station will permit stays of up to six months, similar to the ISS.
China has already launched two small experimental space stations in preparation for the full-scale space station launch; these are used to test measures for docking, life support and rendezvous.
The space station is intended to have a 15-year lifetime. This could allow it to last beyond the projected end of the ISS, as that station enters its final years. The ISS will reach its 30th anniversary in 2028, with no concrete plans at present for its longer-term future.
While the ISS is principally backed by the space agencies of US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, the CNSA was blocked from participating. This was largely at the insistence of the US, due to national security concerns.
Since its establishment in 2003, the CNSA has made rapid leaps and bounds to become a space power. China became the first country to conduct a soft landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019. Last month, a Chinese spacecraft reached Mars; the spacecraft is lowering its orbit (entering a ‘parking orbit’) to prepare for a landing in the coming weeks. If successful, this will make China only the second country to land a spacecraft on Mars, following the US.
This week, it was also reported that China is undergoing work on the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle (Long March 9) over five years. The rocket is expected to be 93m long with a core 10m in diameter. It aims to lift around 130 tonnes to low-earth orbit or around 45 tonnes to trans-lunar injection. The rocket’s payload would make it more powerful than the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The head of China’s lunar exploration programme Luan Enjie told state broadcaster CCTV this week that the rocket will be capable of reaching the Moon and that the project is underway with feasibility studies already complete.
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology will also continue develop of a next-gen crew launch vehicle in the same timescale.