China Positions Planned Space Station for Post-ISS Era

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Engineer concept for Chinese space station. (Credit: CNSA)

China has provided the most detailed plans yet for its planned multi-module space station, which is scheduled to begin full operations in the early 2020’s. Irene Klotz of Space News reports:

China is positioning itself to provide orbital laboratory space, experiment racks and facilities to scientists worldwide following the completion of the U.S.-led international space station program.

“China Space Station (CSS) will operate in orbit from 2022 to 2032. This period will provide much more opportunities to scientists in China and all of the world after the international space station,” Gu Yidong, president of the China Society of Space Research, said at the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research conference here Nov. 3 – 8.

The station’s core module is slated to launch in 2018, followed by two laboratory modules in 2020 and 2022. The outpost will be located in an orbit ranging from 350 kilometers to 450 kilometers above Earth and inclined 42 degrees relative to the planet’s equator.

Building on more than 50 science investigations that took place aboard China’s Shenzhou spaceships and its prototype Tiangong laboratory over the last 14 years, the primary emphasis of research on CSS will be life and physical sciences, said Gu, who served as the chief designer and commander of China’s manned space program space utilization system.

The International Space Station is scheduled to fly at least through 2020. NASA wants to extend the station’s life through 2028, saying the additional time is required to complete biomedical research needed to safely send humans on extended deep space mission. The station is also hosting an increasing amount of commercial microgravity research.

However, there is reluctance on the part of its international partners to commit to the extended operations. ISS operations are expensive, and partners would like to pursue newer projects. It’s not clear whether NASA will be able to convince the partners to stay on, or be able to attract other countries to invest in the project.

In addition to China, Bigelow Aerospace plans to begin offering private space stations later in this decade. The company is initially targeting sovereign governments, some of whom could decide to invest in new orbital facilities instead of continuing to support ISS operations.

It’s also unclear how a budget constrained NASA would be able to continue to operate the space station while simultaneously pursuing human deep space missions with the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle, which are set to fly with astronauts beginning in 2021.

NASA is hoping that the commercial cargo and crew programs it is pursuing will enable it to lower the cost of ISS operations, allowing the space agency to continue station operations while pursuing deep space exploration.