China Launches First Module of New Space Station Into Orbit

The module is the country’s largest spacecraft ever built and marks the first step in building their new space station by 2022

A photo of the first module of the Chinese Space Station blasting off on a rocket to space.
Designed to operate for more than a decade, the Chinese Space Station will have 14 refrigerator-sized experiment racks and 50 external docking points designed for experiments outside the station to test how materials react in space. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

On April 28, China launched the first module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) into the cosmos. Dubbed Tianhe or “Harmony of the Heavens,” the 16.6-meter-long spacecraft is the first of three modules that will eventually form a T-shaped space station by the end of 2022, reports Mike Wall for Space.com.

In September 2011, China first launched a mini prototype space lab, Tiangong 1, to test spaceflight and technologies needed to support a larger space station in Earth’s orbit, Space.com reports. In 2016, the second lab Tiangong 2, was launched as well, but neither remains in orbit. However, Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 were essential blueprints in approving Tianhe for lift-off along with the Shenzhou missions, reports Ling Xin for Scientific American.

Now that Tianhe is in orbit, China plans ten more launches of other space modules as well as crewed and cargo missions to complete the CSS’s construction. When the T-shaped space station is fully assembled and running, it will consist of three major modules. Tianhe, the first main module, and two 14.4-meter-long modules named, Wentian or “Quest for the Heavens” and Mengtian or, “Dreaming of the Heavens” will attach permanently to Tianhe, Scientific American reports. Tianhe will serve as the CSS’s central management and control center with enough space to accommodate three astronauts for half a year. Tianhe also has five dock ports that can be used for future expansion, reports Scientific American.

Designed to operate for more than a decade, the CSS will have 14 refrigerator-sized experiment racks and 50 external docking points designed for experiments outside the station to test how materials react in space, reports Space.com. At only 20 percent of the International Space Station's (ISS) size, the CSS is outfitted for various research endeavors, with about 100 experiments and missions already planned, Scientific American reports.

In total, six international and collaborative experiments have been approved to take place aboard the CSS. One project, for example, focuses on the effects of microgravity on tumors, with a specific focus on whether microgravity can stop or slow the growth of cancer cells, reports Scientific American. Other will observe phase changes of liquids and gases in microgravity to improve cooling technology in space—or even in laptops here on Earth. The collaborative research effort includes scientists in Norway, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium, reports Katie Hunt for CNN. However, while the CSS is calling for international collaboration, the United States currently prohibits NASA from collaborating with China on space-related activates, reports Space.com.

In 2022, the CSS will join the ISS as the only fully operational space stations currently in orbit. For two decades, ISS has been a symbol of space collaboration between various countries, with close involvement from the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and European countries, reports CNN. However, as the ISS continues to age, multiple countries have already decided to build their own space stations. Russia, for example, announced plans to leave the ISS in 2025 and launch their space station into orbit by 2030. The plan awaits approval from President Vladimir Putin, reports Reuters.

While the ISS may play a key role in NASA’s plans to focus on Moon landing missions and Missions to Mars, NASA wants to commercialize the ISS to cover the $1.1 billion annual operation costs, CNN reports. Currently, the ISS is approved to operate through 2024, reported Meghan Bartels for Space.com last year.

"While ISS is currently approved to operate through at least December 2024 by the international partner governments, from a technical standpoint, we have cleared ISS to fly until the end of 2028," NASA officials wrote in a statement to Space.com. "Additionally, our analysis has not identified any issues that would preclude us from extending beyond 2028 if needed."