Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tiangong-1 Chinese Space Station Successfully Orbited

China today successfully launched it's new prototype space station, named Tiangong-1, which translates in English as “Heavenly Palace.” Launched by a Long March 2FG rocket it was initially inserted into a 350 km by 200 km orbit.

Tiangong-1's primary purpose is to serve as a docking target for a series of Schenzhou spacecraft, aiding China in developing rendezvous and docking capability. As such, it is not a fully functioning space station, but rather a sparsely equipped docking target that can be used as a temporary manned habitat, but only when a Shenzhou manned spacecraft is present.

The Long March 2FG rocket carrying Tiangong-1 lifted off at 13:16 UTC (21:16 Beijing time) from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) launch pad 902, in the Gobi Desert. The rocket's four first stage YF-20B engines supplemented by four more YF-20B's on the strap-on boosters produced over a million pounds of total thrust at lift-off. The spectacular nighttime launch, carried live on Chinese television, was seen by millions in China and around the world.

The two stage rocket with its four strap on boosters can place 19,000 lbs into low earth orbit. The Long March 2F now has eight successful launches in eight attempts. The 2FG variant used for this launch sports a larger nose shroud and an improved guidance system along with stretched second stage propellant tanks.

According to China Manned Spaceflight Engineering Office (CMSE), after launch the Tiangong-1 will be maneuvered into a 350 km circular orbit.  There it will await the scheduled November 1 launch of the Shenzhou 8 unmanned spacecraft.  Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to dock with the station two days after launch.  The two will remain docked for twelve days, at which time the Shenzhou 8 will undock and then redock with Tiangong-1 before finally departing and returning to earth.  Tiangong-1 will then raise it's orbit and await the arrival of it's first crew on Shenzhou 9 next year.

Tiangong-1 weighs about 19,000 pounds and measures about 13 feet in diameter and 35 feet in length.  It's intended to be used for two years. After the unmanned visit of Schenzhou 8 two crewed spacecraft, Schenzhou 9 and Schenzhou 10 are scheduled to visit it.  As many as two more Tiangong spacecraft could be launched in the coming years.

SinoDefense.com says of Tiangong-2 that “It will be a fully-functional space outpost that can support three astronauts for up to 20 days.” and “The module will test the water recycling and oxygen generation technologies required for short- to medium-term orbit living, and allow the astronauts to carry out various scientific experiments and earth observation missions.”

The third and final Tiangong module, Tiangong 3, is scheduled for launch in 2016 according to SinoDefense. “This will be an improved design that can support three astronauts for up to 40 days. The outpost will be used to test the effects of medium- to long-term orbit living on the human body.”

China plans to build a MIR class 60 ton space station by 2020.


Our thanks to Americaspace.org for it's in depth coverage of Tiangong-1.
Image credits: CMSE and CNTV