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China’s Tiangong space station

China Is Now a Major Space Power. With the Tiangong station’s completion, the country has a long-term platform in orbit. On October 31, China launched the final piece of its new Tiangong space station, completing its construction.


Tiangong officially the Tiangong space station, is a space station constructed by China and operated by China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) in low Earth orbit between 340 and 450 km (210 and 280 mi) above the surface.


Being China’s first long-term space station and the core of the “Third Step” of the China Manned Space Program (CMS), it has a mass between 90 and 100 t (200,000 and 220,000 lb), roughly one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station and about the size of the decommissioned Russian Mir space station.


The International Space Station won’t run for much longer. You may well end up with only one orbiting space station—the Chinese one,” says Fabio Tronchetti, a space law professor at Beihang University in Beijing and the University of Mississippi.  The much larger ISS, operated by the United States, the European Space Agency, Russia, and other partners, could be retired as soon as 2030—that’s the end date the Biden administration gave it after extending its mission last year


The 18-meter lab module, named Mengtian (meaning “dreaming of the heavens”), enables a range of scientific experiments and now allows the station to accommodate up to six people at a time. It currently hosts commander Chen Dong and two other astronauts.


According to CMSA, which operates the space station, the purpose and mission of Tiangong is to develop and gain experience in spacecraft rendezvous technology, permanent human operations in orbit, long-term autonomous spaceflight of the space station, regenerative life support technology and autonomous cargo and fuel supply technology. It will also serve the platform for the next-generation orbit transportation vehicles, scientific and practical applications at large-scale in orbit, and technology for future deep space exploration.


CMSA also encourages commercial activities led by the private sector and hopes their involvement could bring cost-effective aerospace innovations. Space tourism at the space station is also considered.




The space station is a third-generation modular space station. First-generation space stations, such as early Salyut, Almaz, and Skylab, were single-piece stations and not designed for resupply. Second-generation Salyut 6 and 7, and Tiangong 1 and 2 stations, are designed for mid-mission resupply. Third-generation stations, such as Mir and the International Space Station, are modular space stations, assembled in orbit from pieces launched separately. Modular design can greatly improve reliability, reduce costs, shorten development cycles, and meet diversified task requirements.


The first module, the Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”) core module, was launched on 29 April 2021,  followed by multiple crewed and uncrewed missions and two more laboratory cabin modules Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) launched on 24 July 2022 and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”) launched on 31 October 2022. The research conducted on the station aims to improve researchers’ ability to conduct science experiments in space.


But although it’s smaller than the ISS, says Jan Osburg, an aerospace engineer at the Rand Corporation, “on the inside they have some creature comfort features that improve habitability and therefore astronaut productivity: less clutter, more wireless rather than cabling, and a microwave in space.”


The real-time communications, including live audio and video links, are provided by the Tianlian II series of data relay satellites. A constellation of three satellites was launched into geostationary orbits, providing communication and data support for the station.


China successfully launched its cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-5 in November 2022 to deliver supplies for its space station, the construction of which is expected to be completed this year. The cargo craft is expected to conduct a fast-automated rendezvous and docking with the space station combination.


Military impact

The Chinese Space Station (CSS), has been a talking point in the US military circles and the scientific community. In January 2022, with its massive robotic arm, the Chinese space station successfully grasped and transferred a cargo spacecraft. The 47-minute maneuver was the first test of Tiangong’s 10-metre (33-foot) robotic arm.


“The mission proved the mechanical arm’s ability to handle high loads and assessed the feasibility and effectiveness of using it to maneuver a portion of the space station while in orbit.


According to China Manned Space Programme, Tiangong’s robotic arm is capable of lifting objects weighing up to 20 tonnes and can move about outside the station. In September 2021, the cargo spacecraft Tianzhou 2 performed an automatic release and re-dock at the Tianhe core module. However, it was the first time when it was moved around using the robotic arm.


With a larger door, Mengtian is capable of releasing miniaturised satellites into space. “Astronauts can install the small satellites on a payload transfer device, depressurise the airlock cabin, and then convey them out of the cabin,” said Meng Yao, a designer of Mengtian. “The robotic arm outside the space station will grab the satellites and then catapult them in specified directions,” Meng was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.


The Chinese astronauts had also gone on spacewalks after the core module Tianhe was launched into orbit in April last year to work on the robotic arm and guarantee that it was operational.


Smaller versions of Tiangong’s robotic arm have been installed on China’s “scavenger satellites” to collect and direct space debris so that it can burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. China has launched several scavenger satellites over the last decade.




Earlier, James Dickinson, Commander of the US Space Command, had told a Congressional hearing that the technology “could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites”.



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