China is considering expanding its Tiangong space station

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HELSINKI — China is already considering adding modules to its recently-completed Tiangong space station complex, according to a senior space official.

China recently completed construction of its three-module, T-shaped Tiangong space station and conducted its first crew handover, seeing the Shenzhou-14 mission astronauts welcome aboard three new astronauts from Shenzhou-15.

The potential next phase would be adding a new core module, Wang Xiang, commander of the space station system at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). 

“Following our current design, we can continue to launch an extension module to dock with the forward section of the space station, and the extension module can carry a new hub for docking with the subsequent space vehicles,” Wang told CCTV following the return to Earth of the Shenzhou-14 crew Dec. 4.

Tianhe, the space station core module, was the first piece of the station to be launched back in April 2021. It provides the main propulsion and life support systems and crew quarters for the astronauts on Tiangong and carries a docking hub to facilitate the arrival of spacecraft and further modules.  

Wang said that the additional module would provide a larger and more comfortable environment for the astronauts, while providing an environment for better applications of scientific payloads, both inside and outside the module.

A backup or engineering model of the Tianhe core module including docking hubs has been seen in CAST presentations alongside the flight model prior to launch. Models of both the Tianhe and Wentian and Mengtian science modules have also been shown connected for ground testing. 

Wang did not state that the plan to expand Tiangong had been approved, but underlined that adding a new core module would open up avenues for more international cooperation in the future, and provide a basis for the next development of the space station. 

Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut to reach space and now deputy chief designer of China’s human spaceflight project, revealed in March this year at the country’s annual political sessions in Beijing that a number of countries have submitted applications to China for astronaut training and joint spaceflight missions. Yang also noted the possibility of tourist flights to Tiangong, while another senior official stated that China is exploring commercial possibilities.

In terms of further ambitions, Wang stated that an extended space station could prove useful for the country’s crewed lunar endeavors, noting that the outpost could be used for testing new generation spacecraft

China’s original, basic plan for Tiangong is to keep the space station occupied and operational for at least 10 years. A co-orbiting survey space telescope named Xuntian is expected to join Tiangong in orbit no earlier than late 2023.