Tianhe, the Core of the Chinese Space Station

Facts Worth Sharing

  • 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 3 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 will blast off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the Chinese island of Hainan aboard a Long March 5B rocket.

Tianhe will likely get its first visitor just a few weeks after it arrives at its destination. In May 2021, China is expected to launch the uncrewed Tianzhou-2 spacecraft, which will supply Tianhe with fuel and astronaut supplies for later missions.

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.

Chinese Space Station
Chinese Space Station Artist's concept of China's upcoming space station in low-Earth orbit.Image: CMS

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