China prepares to launch laboratory module to Tiangong space station

China will launch the second module of its Tiangong space station on 24 July. It will be the first laboratory module to be added to the space station, after the 16-metre-long core module Tianhe launched in April 2021.

The latest module, called Wentian or “Quest for the Heavens”, will launch on a Long March-5B Y3 rocket from Hainan Island, located southwest of Hong Kong, at around 2pm local time.

“As a major spacefaring nation, China has arrived,” says Quentin Parker at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s only the third nation after Russia and America to have a space station and this one is spanking new. It’s got all the latest technology.”

As well as the ability to perform more advanced scientific experiments in microgravity than Tianhe, Wentian will add several key features to the space station. These include a 5-metre-long robotic arm, large solar panels and an airlock, which will become the main entry and exit point for future vehicles and astronauts accessing the space station. In addition, Wentian has extra navigation and communication systems, as well as propulsion tools to reorient the space station in case Tianhe’s systems fail.

Wentian – which measures about 18 metres long and 4 metres wide, similar to Tianhe – will also serve as additional crew quarters, doubling the space station’s capacity from three to six astronauts.

Once Wentian docks with Tianhe on one end, its module will detach and reorient itself to attach to the side of Tianhe via the two modules’ robotic arms, forming part of the station’s eventual T-shape. “That’s going to be quite interesting, but it’s the kind of thing that they will have tested a lot to be confident they can do it,” says David Brown at the University of Warwick, UK. Moving entire modules in space via robotic arms is a relatively novel approach.

The three crew members that Tianhe can hold will then enter Wentian, activating its various life-support systems and experiments. After Wentian is fully operational, another laboratory module, Mengtian, will launch in October, marking the completion of the space station’s T-shape.

The frequency and variety of China’s recent space launches has surprised even seasoned observers. “China’s quietly now launching more rockets than anyone else into orbit,” says Parker. “It did it last year, it’s going to beat its own world record again this year. It’s got plans for a moon base and everything else. So you know, they’re quietly and methodically and carefully really going places in space.”

One reason for an increased focus in China on domestic space policy and experiments is because of the geopolitical difficulty of collaborating on US-led missions, such as the International Space station, says Parker.

In addition to being able to do its own scientific experiments, the space station will give China greater influence over science on the international stage, says Christoph Beischl at the London Institute of Space Policy and Law.

“If, for example, another country wants to conduct human spaceflight, or wants to put an astronaut into space, they don’t have to go through the US anymore,” says Beischl. As well as the US and China, Russia has also launched and operated space stations.

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