Tianhe, the core of the Chinese Space Station

Highlights

  • Tianhe is the foundational module for China’s space station in low-Earth orbit.

  • The module has a control center, docking hub and living quarters for three crew members. It’ll also provide life support to those eventually on board.

  • Tianhe launched on April 29, 2021 on a Long March 5B rocket. China will follow up by launching 11 missions to complete its multi-module space station by 2022.

Why China is building a space station

China has long had its sights set on establishing its own space station in low-Earth orbit. The country, which is not an International Space Station partner, has spent the last few decades making preparations, even launching two space labs — Tiangong-1 in 2011 and Tiangong-2 in 2016. Though both space stations were eventually destroyed upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, they provided critical information for future modules that would form a much larger space station.

That’s where Tianhe comes in. Tianhe — which means “harmony of the heavens" — is literally and figuratively at the core of China’s space station. As the foundational module, it will provide life support and living quarters for 3 crewmembers. It will also host a control center and docking hub, which will allow Tianhe to link with yet-to-be-launched science modules.

Tianhe core module
Tianhe core module The Tianhe core module as seen during processing before flight.Image: CMS

How Tianhe works

Tianhe launched on April 29, 2021. The 24-ton space station blasted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the Chinese island of Hainan aboard a Long March 5B rocket.

Tianhe got its first visitor just a few weeks after it arrived at its destination. On May 29, 2021, China launched the Tianzhou-2 spacecraft, which supplied Tianhe with fuel and astronaut supplies for later missions.

On June 17, the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft docked with Tianhe. Three astronauts were on board. The crew is set to spend three months testing equipment on Tianhe, preparing it for future astronauts.

The Tianhe core module is just one component of the Chinese space station, albeit a critical one. China plans to launch 11 missions between 2021 and 2022 in order to complete its 73-ton space station. Chinese astronauts have already begun training for crewed missions to Tianhe, but firm dates for those missions haven’t been set.

Tianhe's Interior
Tianhe's Interior This photo offers a glimpse inside Tianhe, the core module of China's space station in low-Earth orbit.Image: CMS

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