China launches third and last space module . . .
On Monday, China completed the assembly of its space station after the station’s final module successfully connected to the space station’s core structure. This final ‘Mengtian’ module was carried by a Long March 5B rocket and docked to the ‘Tianhe’ core unit and the ‘Wentian’ experiment module, the latter two having been launched into orbit in April 2021 and July 2022, respectively. This completes the assembly of China’s space station, Tiangong, which is expected to remain in low Earth orbit for the duration of its 10–15-year lifespan. If the International Space Station (ISS) is taken out of service around the end of its 30-year operating plan in 2028 as expected, China’s Tiangong could then become the only operating space station.
What will Tiangong do?
Once operational, Tiangong will be constantly crewed, with teams of three astronauts (Chinese astronauts are referred to as ‘taikonauts’) rotating to conduct scientific experiments and testing new technologies, allowing China to have a permanent human presence in space. The space station is equipped with two dozen mini-laboratories fitted with centrifuges, cold chambers, a high-temperature furnace, multiple lasers, and other scientific equipment that will be used to conduct experiments like those carried out on the ISS. Researchers from other countries could also have access to the orbiting laboratory, as China has selected nine international experiments it will conduct collaboratively with researchers from countries including India, Japan, Mexico, and Russia.
To the Moon, Mars, and beyond . . .
The Tiangong station is one of the most important components of China’s space program, which also includes missile development, the launch of satellites, and moon and outer-space exploration programs, with the later including plans for future missions to Mars and Jupiter. China also plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope into orbit next to its space station, which will complement NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. China has been moving quickly to catch up with the U.S. on space exploration after being excluded from the ISS since 2011, when the U.S. forbade NASA from engaging with its Chinese counterpart.