China Plans Launch of Permanent Space Station Around 2018

Artist's conception of China's Tianhe-1 space station. (Credit: China Manned Space Engineering)
Artist’s conception of China’s Tianhe-1 space station. (Credit: China Manned Space Engineering)

China plans to launch the core of its permanent Tianhe-1 space station around 2018, with full assembling of the multi-module facility due to be complete about four years later, officials said last week.

The emerging space power is also developing two modules to dock with the core and several advanced technologies — including robotic arms and 3D printers — that will be placed aboard the station. Officials said the station will feature two robotic arms, two 30-meter solar panels and a Hubble-class telescope.

The space station will be serviced by crewed Shenzhou spacecraft capable of carrying up to three astronauts and Tianzhou cargo ships. The resupply ship will be tested for the first time next year with a flight to China’s Tiangong-2 space station.

Tianhe-1’s core module will be launched by China’s new Long March-5 heavy-lift booster, which will make its inaugural launch later this year. The launch vehicle is capable of lifting 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit.

Chinese engineers are busy developing Tianhe-1’s two robotic arms.

According to a source from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the main contractor for the Chinese space program, research on the project began in 2007, and so far experts have built a robotic arm over ten meters long. The arm is capable of both payload lifting and precision maneuvers while in space.

With seven motorized joints and no fixed ends, it could crawl along the surface of a spacecraft like an inchworm, the source said, adding that the robotic arm could reach literally “every corner of the spacecraft” on its own calculations via a route planning system and attached cameras.

Another CASC source, meanwhile, said scientists were in fact developing two robotic arm models for the core module and an experimental module of China’s planned space station, adding that the two arms could work in combination.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) also recently tested a microgravity 3D printer aboard a parabolic aircraft.

Duan Xuanming, head of 3D printing research center under CAS’s Chongqing Institute, said the printer has finished 93 zero gravity flying tests in France.

The printer can produce bigger space parts than the one sent to the International Space Station by NASA late last month.

The device could help China build a space station in 2020 and facilitate its operation and maintenance thereafter, said Duan.

In-orbit 3D printing is effective in helping with space station repair and maintenance and is essential for future deep space exploration, Duan said.

Sources:

China plans to launch core module of space station around 2018: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/21/c_135299712.htm

China to launch ’Tianhe-1’ space station core module in 2018: http://gbtimes.com/china/china-launch-tianhe-1-space-station-core-module-2018

China developing robotic arms for space stations: sources: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/21/c_135300461.htm

China scientists develop space 3D printer: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-04/19/c_135294249.htm