After several years and multiple missions, China has finally completed its self-developed space station and is the only space-going nation that has sole control of a crewed orbital craft.
The country’s national space agency announced it had successfully docked the third and final module of its space station, Tiangong, in late October.
Blasted into space from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan, the 18-metre, 22-ton Mengtian or “dreaming of heavens” module made contact with the Tiangong station roughly 13 hours after launch, according to the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA).
Mengtian joins its sister modules, Wentian and Tianhe, forming the Tiangong superstructure in a rough T-shape design.
Mengtian is equipped with scientific instruments for experimentation, as it will predominantly serve as the station’s laboratory. The bus-sized craft is stockpiled with tools that will assist the taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) with experiments pertaining to combustion, fluid physics and materials science.
The module also carries several sets of state-of-the-art augmented reality (AR) goggles that will assist the station’s occupants with important maintenance work during their stay in space.
China intends to keep Tiangong operational and occupied for at least a decade, expressing interest in collaborating with international partners and hosting foreign astronauts, including an initiative with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA).
Upon entering Mengtian for the first time, Shenzhou 14 member and first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yang, told ground control China’s space station was a “home in the heavens to all humanity”.
With the Tiangong station complete, the crew, all members of the Shenzhou 14 mission, will prepare the craft for its next visitors, the Shenzhou 15 crew, scheduled for launch sometime late this year.
Before that happens, the crew of Shenzhou 14, led by commander and 12-year space veteran, Chen Dong, will wait for a delivery of supplies from the Tianzhou-5 unmanned mission.
Because of Tiangong’s modular construction, CNSA has the option of adding further design elements to the vessel. According to Space News, Chinese officials intend to add a sophisticated optical module to Tiangong called “Xuntian” in 2023 or 2024.
Described as a Hubble-level telescope, Xuntian sports a massive 2.5-metre aperture and 2.5 gigapixel camera, estimated to survey 40% of the sky in a ten-year window.
The crew for Shenzhou 15 is preparing to launch near the end of the year. The crew will relieve Shenzhou 14 of their duties and begin the official occupation of China’s brand new space station.