Chinese Space Station Launches, Booster to Crash to Earth

James Maynard
May 1 · 6 min read

Tianhe, the core of the Chinese space station, launched into orbit, breaking ground on the Middle Kingdom’s ambitious new home in space. Keep your eyes up — the booster is going to crash.

The launch of the Tianhe core module for the Chinese Space Station used a Long March 5 rocket, like the one shown here lifting the Tianwen-1 spacecraft to Mars. Image credit: CNSA

On April 28, on China’s southern province island Hainan, massive engines ignited beneath a Long March 5B rocket, lifting Tianhe (Heavenly Harmony) into orbit. This core module successfully reached orbit eight minutes later, readying to become the central node for the Chinese Space Station.

During 10 additional missions over the next 18 months, The China National Space Agency (CNSA) will build upon this central core. Flights will include the addition of two additional crew experiment modules, Wentian and Mengtian, in addition to four additional human flights, and four cargo missions. Once complete in 2022, this grand structure will join the ISS as the only two homes for humans in space.

Just 520 seconds following its picture-perfect launch, fairings of the booster fell away from the rocket, and Tianhe unfurled its solar panels, preparing the first piece of the space station for its decade-long mission. Emblazoned on the side of the craft were the words “China Manned Space.”

Large pieces of spacecraft can survive re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere, as seen by this oxygen tank from Skylab, which crashed to Earth in 1979. Image credit: Rycho626

The rocket which placed the 50 metric ton (55 ton), 6.4 meter (21-foot) -long Tianhe in orbit will fall to Earth in less than a week (most likely). Most boosters either don’t reach orbital velocity, or small rockets fire, deorbiting the stage so it lands in an uninhabited area. This is not the case for this booster, and its uncontrolled re-entry would be one of the largest ever seen.

“Now designated 2021–035B, the roughly 30-meter-long, five-meter-wide Long March 5 core stage is in a 170 by 372-kilometer altitude orbit traveling at more than seven kilometers per second,” Andrew Jones writes for Space News.

During reentry, much of the booster should burn up during reentry. The greatest danger from falling debris would come from components made to resist heat, like thrusters and tanks surviving the inferno and hitting the ground.

Chances are good that debris will land in the ocean or uninhabited area. However, the path of the booster brings its orbit (at times) near some large cities like New York and Madrid. If re-entry happens at night, the event is likely to produce a dazzling display.

A look at the launch of the first module in the Chinese Space Station Video Credit: CCTV

The Chinese Space Station will be, roughly, a quarter as large as the ISS, once all three modules are in place. Once complete, the CSS would have a weight (on Earth) of 66 tons, compared to the ISS, coming in at a hefty 450 tons. The station will be able to house up to three taikonauts, for periods as long as six months. With five docking ports, the CSS will be well-equipped to receive re-supply ships and future crews.

The Chinese Space Station will orbit Earth (210 miles) above our home planet, roughly (20 miles) below the ISS. The CSS will have the ability to alter its altitude when needed.

This mission provides “an important leading project for constructing a powerful country in science and technology and aerospace,” Chinese President Xi Jinping stated.

The first crew to visit the world’s newest space station, Shenzhou12, is expected to launch in June.

“The International Space Station is a phenomenal laboratory, an unparalleled test bed for new invention and discovery. Yet I often thought, while silently gazing out the window at Earth, that the actual legacy of humanity’s attempts to step into space will be a better understanding of our current planet and how to take care of it.” —NASA Astronaut Chris Hadfield

In 1971, the USSR placed the first space station, Salyut 1, into orbit above the Earth. Since that time, space travelers have called 10 other space stations (including the ISS) home.

Tianhe is the twelfth in this line of transformational abodes away from Earth. And, this first module alone is roughly the size of two other famous space stations — Skylab and Mir.

The Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST) will orbit near the new space station, providing astronomers with a new set of eyes on space. Image credit: CNSA

Unlike any previous space stations, the CSS will orbit alongside a Hubble-class space telescope, with which it will be easily able to dock when needed. The Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST) will be as large as its 30-year-old compatriot, while seeing 200 times as much of the sky at a single time.

In 2003, China placed their first taikonaut into space, becoming just the third nation (after the US and USSR) to do so without hitching a ride on another nation’s rocket.

In 2011, the U.S. Congress forbade China from participating in the International Space Station, and NASA was forbidden from working with the nascent leader in space exploration, citing “national security risks.”

By September of that year, China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace-1). That orbiting outpost functioned for four years, before losing communication with Earth, and finally crashing into the Pacific Ocean in 2018. Tiangong-2 reached orbit in 2016, carrying out operations for three years, before being deorbited.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has made amazing strides in space exploration over the next few years.

On Dec. 14, 2013, Chang’e 3 became the first spacecraft in 37 years to make a soft landing on our planetary companion. In another ambitious mission, the Chang’e-4 lander and rover touched down on the seldom-studied far side of the Moon.

The Yutu-2 rover leaves the Chang’e-4 rover to explore the Moon, 15 February, 2019. Image credit: CNSA

Robotic explorers from the world’s most-populous nation recently brought rocks from the Moon to the Earth (aboard Chang’e 5) for the first time in four decades. With the arrival of Tianwen-1 at Mars in February, China became the first nation ever to reach the Red Planet with an orbiter, lander, and rover on their first attempt.

The Zhurong rover (still connected to the orbiter) is expected to touchdown on the Red Planet sometime in the middle of May. Scientific experiments aboard the rover are aimed at finding life, past or present, on our planetary neighbor.

The CSS, like the ISS, will be focused on exploring scientific experiments in physics, chemistry, biology, and other fields.

“The CSS will house 14 refrigerator-size scientific experiment racks and a few general purpose racks that provide power, data, cooling and other services to various research projects. There will also be more than 50 docking points for experiments that will be mounted on the outside of the station to study how materials react to space exposure,” Ling Xin writes for Scientific American.

On 28 May 2018, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) put out a call for experiments to be flown aboard the space station.

“The research areas involve space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion, astronomy, and space technologies,” UNOOSA reports.

Over its operational lifetime, the CSS could be expanded to include as many as three core modules — twice the size currently planned.

Typically, Chinese space programs are accompanied by little publicity by the agencies involved. However, this launch was matched with an hour-long prelaunch analysis on CGTN, and rare YouTube Live coverage of the launch.

Russia, one a leader in space exploration, also plans its own space station, which could begin construction in space in 2025. Russia has also recently announced plans to work with China, developing a joint permanently-crewed lunar station on the Moon.

James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.

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The Cosmic Companion

Exploring the wonders of the Cosmos, one mystery at a time

James Maynard

Written by

Writing about space since I was 10, still not Carl Sagan. Weekly video show, podcast, comics, more:

The Cosmic Companion

Exploring the wonders of the Cosmos, one mystery at a time

James Maynard

Written by

Writing about space since I was 10, still not Carl Sagan. Weekly video show, podcast, comics, more:

The Cosmic Companion

Exploring the wonders of the Cosmos, one mystery at a time

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