China will expand its Tiangong space station with a new orbital module

Tiangong was only completed last year, but China already aims to expand its orbital station.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the Tiangong space station.
An artist's impression of the Tiangong space station.

Gremlin / iStock 

China finished construction of its Tiangong Space Station late last year. Still, the country's space administration is already planning to expand its orbital laboratory, a report from Chinese state media reveals.

The new plans were revealed by the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) during an exhibition at the National Museum of China.

The new expansion will attach to the three modules already in low Earth orbit, changing the T-shaped space station into a cross, reported Xinhua.

China's Tiangong space station expansion

The new multi-functional module reportedly has six docking ports, meaning it can dock more spacecraft. China recently announced it would like to send space tourists to its space station, meaning the new module could help it achieve those ambitions.

China is the only country currently operating its own space station — the International Space Station (ISS) is part of a global collaborative effort — has launched the third and final module of Tiangong to low Earth orbit in October last year. Tiangong is roughly a quarter of the size of the ISS.

The station's launch is undeniably an impressive achievement for China's space administration, but it has also been met with controversy on the global stage due to China's uncontrolled rocket reentries following the launch of each module.

It remains to be seen whether China will launch the upcoming module with the same Long March 5B rocket that caused the uncontrolled reentries or whether it will aim to prevent further controversy. Last year, for example, Spain had to shut down part of its airspace due to fears that Long March 5B rocket debris could down a passenger aircraft.

China competes with global space superpowers

CMSEO officials also revealed that China aims to host international astronauts at Tiangong, much in the same fashion as the ISS.

"We are about to start selecting international astronauts to send to our space station and carry out scientific experiments together," Chen Shanguang, a deputy chief designer of China's human spaceflight program, explained at the exhibition, as per a SpaceNews report.

It's not clear when China aims to send the new Tiangong module to orbit, though it's clear that the expansion is part of China's plan to build an international hub for science in space. The country's space administration has broken new ground in recent years, allowing it to compete with the traditional space superpowers of the US and Russia.

In January last year, for example, China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe detected water directly from the moon's surface for the first time. China has also announced that it will send a crewed mission to the moon later this decade.

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