Just months after its completion, Chinese officials have announced plans to expand the now-operational Tiangong Space Station.
Currently consisting of three modules, Tiangong or ‘Sky Palace’, was completed in November 2022 and is the culmination of more than three decades of research and development by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA).
Despite the station’s operational phase being months old, CNSA intends to expand Tiangong’s capacity, with a fourth multi-functional module, Ji Qiming, assistant director at the China Manned Space Engineering Office told state media outlets.
In December 2022, CNSA toyed with the idea of sending up three duplicate, backup modules for Tiangong, but the plan was ultimately scrapped in favour of sending up a single unit instead, according to the astronomy website Space.com.
Tiangong’s fourth module features six docking ports and will essentially turn the roughly $8.5 billion T-shaped station into a rough cross-shape configuration. The increased ports will allow Tiangong to accommodate an increased number of astronauts and spacecraft.
Outwardly the fourth module resembles the Tianhe – or ‘Harmony of the Heavens’ – core module but does not feature the core cabin’s systems and capabilities.
The Tianhe module is fundamental to the station’s functionality and houses the primary propulsion units, life-support systems and the Taikonaut’s living quarters.
The modular design of the Sky Palace means upsizing and downsizing the scale of the station is far more achievable.
Several “backup” and engineering modules have been developed and are available for use in orbit, according to the manufacturer of the Tiangong modules, China Academy of Space Technology.
China’s space agency has not been idle when it comes to making its mark in the cosmos. As per Space.com, CNSA is readying another module, the Xuntian Space Telescope, that will co-orbit Tiangong, while mapping the universe with its monstrous 2.5 gigapixel camera for an estimated ten-year window.
Like the other Tianong modules, the 15.5-ton craft sports docking ports, meaning Xuntian can receive maintenance and repairs whilst in orbit.
An extended Tiangong could also allow the station to host more visitors, something CNSA has expressed interest in doing.
Chen Shangguang, a chief designer with China’s human spaceflight program, said CNSA was about to begin selecting and training international astronauts to send to Tiangong, where they will carry out a series of experiments with the Chinese crew.
Training international astronauts to become proficient in Tiangong’s systems would take some time, but ultimately the goal was to boost China’s international cooperation in space, said Chen.
He also said several countries have approached China about the project, but no candidates have yet to be selected.