China Unveils Space Station Research Plans

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ORLANDO, Fla. — China is positioning itself to provide orbital laboratory space, experiment racks and facilities to scientists worldwide following the completion of the U.S.-led international space station program.

“China Space Station (CSS) will operate in orbit from 2022 to 2032. This period will provide much more opportunities to scientists in China and all of the world after the international space station,” Gu Yidong, president of the China Society of Space Research, said at the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research conference here Nov. 3-8.

The station’s core module is slated to launch in 2018, followed by two laboratory modules in 2020 and 2022. The outpost will be located in an orbit ranging from 350 kilometers to 450 kilometers above Earth and inclined 42 degrees relative to the planet’s equator. 

The international space station, by comparison, flies about 400 kilometers above Earth in an orbit inclined about 51 degrees.

With 12 kilowatts of power, CSS plans to support 13 experiment racks, an outside exposure platform and equipment for Earth observations and astronomy.

Building on more than 50 science investigations that took place aboard China’s Shenzhou spaceships and its prototype Tiangong laboratory over the last 14 years, the primary emphasis of research on CSS will be life and physical sciences, said Gu, who served as the chief designer and commander of China’s manned space program space utilization system. 

“The main purpose is to promote the understanding of the nature of life,” said Gu, who now leads the space station’s science planning group.

To that end, CSS life science efforts will be divided into five areas: fundamental biology, biotechnology, space radiation biology, fundamental studies on cells and interdisciplinary studies. The latter includes biological mechanics research and hypomagnetic biology, which Gu said “might be very important for very long-term human space exploration.”

The interdisciplinary studies also will touch on synthesizing biological molecules in space as part of an effort to “understand life’s origins,” he added.

The life science experiment racks include a greenhouse for studies on plants and seeds, with a small 1-gravity centrifuge inside. The second life sciences rack can house mice, fruit flies, nematodes and other small animals. 

The lab will have an enclosed glove box equipped with fine robotics and microscopes, as well as three refrigerators for storing samples at 4 degrees Celsius, 20 degrees below zero Celsius and 80 degrees below zero Celsius. 

The second area of microgravity research China intends to develop is fluid physics, with emphasis on both basic science and technology development for ground applications. Three science racks will be devoted to this type of research. 

China has not yet decided whether to include a planned 400-millimeter-by-600-millimeter combustion chamber aboard the station due to safety concerns, Gu said. 

For materials science investigations, CSS will feature a high-temperature experiment rack with two furnaces, one with a maximum temperature of 1,600 degrees Celsius that includes a magnetic field capability, and a middle-temperature furnace (800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius) that has X-ray and optical monitors. 

The lab also will include a container-less materials experiment rack outfitted with an electrostatic levitation furnace and laser heating. The maximum temperature is 2,200 degrees Celsius.

The last area of research China will target is fundamental physics. Proposed science facilities include a cold atom experiment rack with the goal of testing how ultracold rubidium and potassium atoms behave in microgravity.

“If we could get so low temperature, we could research exotic quantum state [and] new phenomena,” Gu said. 

Scientists also are looking at a high-precision time frequency experiment rack that would include a hydrogen atomic clock, a cooled atom microwave clock, a cooled atom optical clock and other equipment, as well as companion ground components. 

Rounding out the physics lab are a high-microgravity level rack, which would reduce the microgravity environment by two to three orders of magnitude, and a variable 750-millimeter centrifuge that would expose samples to gravitational forces ranging from 0.01 to two times Earth’s gravity.

The station will be staffed by three-member crews that rotate out every six months. 

China’s cargo ships will be designed to carry six tons to orbit. Return capability is limited to about 50 kilograms aboard the crew capsules. 

The first 200 candidate science projects already have been selected, Gu said.

Gu made his presentation via video conference, but two other top scientists from China’s space agnecy attended the meeting in person.  It was the first time China was invited to present at the conference.

 

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