China has Added a Science Module to its New Space Station

China has expanded their research capabilities on the Tiangong 3 space station by adding a science module, named Wentian. The new laboratory launched from the Wenchang launch center on July 23 and the module docked to the space station on July 25. China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA) says the astronauts on board will soon be able to conduct experiments in microgravity and life sciences.

China hopes to finish construction of Tiangong 3 by the end of 2022. The final lab module, called the Mengtian, is due to be launched in October. Three astronauts are currently living in the core module, arriving on the Shenzhou-14 mission in June 2022. The crew is overseeing the arrival and docking of the two laboratories. When completed, the orbital Chinese outpost will be about one-fifth the size of the International Space Station.  The crew will conduct several EVAs in support of the station’s construction. 

A Long March 5B Y3 rocket, carrying Wentian lab module blasts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Wenchang in southern China’s Hainan Province Sunday, July 24, 2022. Credit: Li Gang/Xinhua via AP

The first module, the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station was launched in April of 2021. This third-generation habitat builds on the experiences learned from the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 stations, which have since been deorbited, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. The Tianhe Core Module (Harmony of the Heavens) is the main living and navigational module, and the two  Laboratory Cabin Modules (LCMs) are the newly arrived Wentian (Quest for the Heavens) and Mengtian (Dreaming of the Heavens).

The crew onboard consists of Chen Dong, Cai Xuzhe, and notably, Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman to fly to space in 2012 during the country’s Shenzhou-9 mission. That mission also included the first Chinese crewed space docking.

Screen image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on June 5, 2022 shows three Chinese astronauts, Chen Dong (C), Liu Yang (R) and Cai Xuzhe, waving after entering the space station core module Tianhe. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

China launched its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, making it just the third country to do so on its own after the Soviet Union (now Russia) – which when it launched Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961 – and the US. China’s National Space Administration (CNSA)  has landed robot rovers on the Moon, as well as returning lunar samples back to Earth, and sent the Tianwen-1 orbiter and Zhurong rover to Mars last year.