China Readies New Space Station, New Heavy Lift Rocket for September Launches

China Readies New Space Station, New Heavy Lift Rocket for September Launches

China is getting ready to launch a new small space station, Tiangong-2, and its new Long March 5 heavy lift rocket this month. Tiangong-2 will be launched by the venerable Long March 2F, but larger space station modules will be launched aboard Long March 5 rockets in the early 2020s.

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1 was orbited in 2011.  Over the next two years, it was visited by three spacecraft: an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 spacecraft in 2011 as a systems test, followed by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013 (Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10). has a list of all of China’s human spaceflight-related flights since the first in 1999.  China has launched a total of 5 crewed flights since then: in 2003 (one man), 2005 (two men), 2008 (three men), 2012 (two men and one woman) and 2013 (two men and one woman).   While some analysts cite this as an aggressive schedule reminiscent of the early Soviet and U.S. human spaceflight programs in the 1960s, it is in fact a very measured pace.

The list is about to get longer with the launch of Tiangong-2 in mid-September.  These space stations are quite small in comparison with the first Soviet and U.S. space stations (Salyut 1 and Skylab, respectively).  Tiangong modules are 8.5 metric tons (MT), while Salyut 1 (launched in 1971) was 18.6 MT and Skylab (1973) was 77 MT.   The International Space Station now in orbit is approximately 400 MT and has been permanently occupied by two-six person crews operating generally on 4-6 month rotations since the year 2000. 

Despite its modest size, the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 crews remained aboard Tiangong 1 for about two weeks.  The crew size for Tiangong-2 has been reduced to two and they will stay for 30 days.  The first, composed of two men, reportedly will launch on Shenzhou-11 in mid-October.

Tiangong space stations and Shenzhou spacecraft are launched from China’s Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert, China’s original launch site.  Tiangong-2 arrived at Jiuquan in July and Shenzhou-11 and the two rockets in August.

Meanwhile, China has inaugurated its new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.   That brings to four the number of Chinese space launch sites.  The others are Xichang near Chengdu, used for launches to geostationary orbit, and Taiyuan, south of Beijing, for polar orbit launches.  

The first launch from Hainan took place in June.  It was the debut of the new mid-sized Long March 7 rocket capable of placing 13.5 MT in low Earth orbit (LEO).   China now is getting ready for the first flight of its Long March 5 from Hainan, expected in mid-September. 

The 5-meter diameter Long March 5 will be the largest in China’s fleet, able to put 25 MT into LEO.  The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV Heavy, which can place 28.4 MT into LEO.

Long March 5 is the latest in a series of new launch vehicles China is developing to replace its original fleet of various versions of Long March 2, 3 and 4.  It tested two small rockets, Long March 6 (liquid-fueled) and  Long March 11 (solid-fueled), in 2015.  The mid-sized Long March 7 was tested in June and now the large “heavy” Long March 5.  Long March 5, 6 and 7 use environmentally friendly fuels and have a modular design where common components are shared according to China’s CCTV news channel.

China lists the Chang’e-5 robotic lunar probe, a robotic Mars probe, and the core module for a new generation space station as upcoming Long March 5 launches.  The launch of Chang’e-5, designed to return samples from the Moon, is expected in 2017.  The 200 kilogram Mars probe (a lander and rover) is scheduled for launch in August 2020.  The new generation space station, a three module design with a total mass of 60 MT, is planned for the early 2020s (Chinese officials variously say 2022 or 2023).

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