April launch signals “imminent start” of China’s space station construction

China has announced that the maiden flight of its Long March-5B rocket will take place in April, carrying an experimental version of the country’s largest-ever spaceship.

The spaceship, which will not be manned on this flight, consists of a crew module and a service module, making up a unit with a mass of about 20 tonnes and a length of 9m. It will be capable of venturing beyond a low Earth orbit with a crew of up to six astronauts.

The first flight of the craft will test its performance in orbit and its ability to deal with a high-speed re-entry, parachute deployment, landing and recovery. The core capsule will not be launched.

One of the first tasks of the unnamed spacecraft will be to build China’s Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens") modular space station. The station will consist of a core module, where the crew will live, and two experimental modules.

A panel view of the core module (Leebrandoncremer/CC BY-SA 4.0)

China aims to complete this around 2022. According to the China Manned Space Agency, more than 10 missions are planned in the next three years to complete the construction and master the technologies that will be used in the in-orbit assembly of the station. The total cost of this project is expected to be around $30bn.

The rocket, the spaceship and Tianhe’s prototype core capsule are all undergoing tests at the Wenchang SatelliteLaunch Centre on the island of Hainan in southern China, which the Xinhua agency says indicated the "imminent start" of the space station’s construction.

The Long March-5B is a modified version of the Long March-5, China’s largest carrier rocket.

The Long March 5’s third flight was successfully completed in December last year following a lift-off in July 2017 that ended in in-flight failure. This was later traced to a faulty oxidiser turbopump, which has since been redesigned at least twice. A video of the launch can be seen below:

The core module had been slated for launch in 2018, but this was delayed by the failure.

Later missions for the partly reusable spacecraft are to include lunar exploration, the first step of which will be a landing on the Moon before 2024.

China made 34 space launches in 2019, putting it first in that league table. According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, it will make 40 in 2020, placing more than 60 satellites into orbit. These will concentrate on mainly focusing on the completion of the BeiDou-3 Navigation Satellite System, lunar exploration and the network of Gaofen observation satellites.

Wenchang is China’s newest spaceport, one of the four launch centres located on its coastline.

Top image: China Manned Space Engineering’s image of Tianhe

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