18 October 2016

China’s Shenzhou 11 Mission: A Step Closer to a Permanent Space Station

By Puneet Bhalla
16 Oct , 2016

On 15 September 2015, a Chinese Long March 2F rocket put Tiangong-2 (Heavenly Palace), the 8.6 tonne Chinese Space Laboratory into the low Earth orbit (LEO) of 380 kilometres. Over the next fortnight, the second of the Chinese Space Laboratories, has completed its preparatory checks and has manoeuvred to a circular 393 kilometre orbit, awaiting rendezvous and docking with the Shenzhou-11 (Divine Vessel) manned spacecraft.

The Chinese human spaceflight programme, which began in 1992, has seen a steady, measured and sustained progress over the years. With the success of its first manned mission in 2003 (Shenzhou-5), it became only the third country after the US and Russia to have achieved this feat. Since then it has undertaken five more successful missions (including four manned ones), each aimed at and successfully achieving more complex goals. In September 2008, the first spacewalk by a Chinese taikonaut was accomplished (Shenzhou-7). Over the years, having perfected the design of Shenzhou series of manned spacecraft for carrying crew and having proven its reliability, China has begun its series production. In 2011, it put its first orbital laboratory, Tiangong-1, into orbit. Three missions carried out docking with this orbital module, an unmanned one during the Shenzhou-8 mission in November 2011 and a manned one during the Shenzhou-9 mission in June 2012. The last Chinese manned mission was Shenzhou-10[i] that in June 2013 docked twice with the orbiting space lab, once through automatic operation and once manually.[ii] Three taikonauts had then spent 12 days in the module, conducting experiments and tests and even delivering a lecture to Chinese students on Earth.

Having tested and validated docking technologies and techniques, Tiangong-2, although of similar dimensions (10.4 meters high and 3.35 meters in diameter), has been planned with an aim to accommodate orbital stay for taikonauts for undertaking various experiments. Shenzhou-11, the sixth Chinese manned mission, is expected to launch in mid-October carrying onboard only two taikonauts. They are planned to stay at the orbital laboratory for 30 days, providing insights into various aspects of human stays in orbit and testing of life support systems to the Chinese. The two would also undertake experiments related to in-orbit repair and maintenance and space physics and biology. There is also an atomic clock onboard which is accurate to one second every 30 million years and a Quantum Communication payload that would establish space to earth quantum key distribution.[iii]

In April 2017, China’s first space cargo ship Tianzhou-1 (Heavenly Vessel) would be sent into space on board China’s new medium-lift Long March-7 rocket (capable of lifting up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit). LM-7 carried out its maiden flight in June 2016 from China’s new Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in Hainan. The cargo ship would rendezvous and dock with Tiangong-2 and verify key technologies including cargo transportation and on-orbit propellant resupply and conduct experiments, including observing stem cell behaviour and mechanisms in microgravity.[iv] On-orbit refuelling would extend the operational lifespan of the laboratory and validate the technology necessary for sustaining a permanently crewed space station.

These missions have been verifying technologies and testing aspects related to construction, operation and sustaining of China’s permanent space station.[v] Its design envisages three modules in a T-shape, totally weighing around 60 tonnes (the International Space Station weighs 420 tonnes). The core module, called Tianhe-1 (Harmony of the Heavens), is planned for launch in end 2017/ early 2018 onboard the under development heavy-lift Long March-5 rocket (25 tonnes to low Earth orbit) that is expected to make its first test flight from Hainan’s Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in November this year. This is China’s new launch site that has been established closer to the Equator, as compared to its other three launch sites, for enabling launch of heavier payloads. On an island in Hainan, it also allows transportation of the five metre wide boosters of the LM-5 rockets by sea, thereby bypassing the limits imposed by the narrowness of the rail system.

Tianhe-1 will have five docking interfaces, including one for ‘Tianzhou’ cargo ships, two for crewed spacecraft, and two space lab modules – Experimental Capsule I & II. A two-metre diameter ‘optical module’ (space telescope) will also be part of the Chinese space station. It is expected to provide a level of resolution no less than the famous Hubble space telescope, but with a field of view 300 times larger.[vi] It will normally accommodate three astronauts at a time but would have a maximum capacity of six. The station will also have two robotic arms, with a total length of 15 metres. The experiment modules and the optical module are expected to follow in the early 2020s and the Space Station is planned to be operational by 2022/23 with an initial designed life of 10 years. As per the current plan, the International Space Station would terminate its operations in 2024, leaving China with the only operational space station in orbit.

China has been seeking international cooperation for its space station project, asking countries to send scientific payloads and astronauts and even collaborate towards expanding the station. In June 2016, it announced a partnership with the United Nations to allow UN member states, especially developing countries that would allow them the benefit of on-orbit research and opportunities provided by the Chinese Space Station.[vii] Europe and Russia have also shown interest in the project. It is pertinent to note here that the United States in 2011 had imposed prohibition on its national space agency NASA from interacting with China and that China has also been barred from participating in the International Space Station, mainly due to objections from the US.

The space station programme has been important to the Chinese, as is evident from the large investments made into it. New rockets[viii] and a launch site have been developed for it and these would further contribute to its planned missions to the Moon and Mars. One of the primary objectives of all these missions is to bolster its global stature that would further enhance its geopolitical influence. At the same time, they would demonstrate its technological prowess and reliability allowing it to make greater inroads into the expanding commercial space market. Although, the manned programme does not directly provide any military benefits, many of the involved technologies and applications, such as rendezvous and proximity operations, do have dual use potential.


[1] Both Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 carried a crew of three (two men and one woman).

[2] Tiangong-1ended transmissions in March 2016 and is expected to fall back to Earth in 2017.

[3]For more details on Quantum Key Distribution read PuneetBhalla, “China to Launch World’s First Quantum Communication Satellite”, 05 July, 2016, at http://www.claws.in/1601/china-to-launch-worlds-first-quantum-communication-satellite-puneet-bhalla.html

[4]Andrew Jones, “Shenzhou-11: Crew to orbit for 30 days, but no female taikonauts”, gbtimes, 01 March 2016, accessed at http://gbtimes.com/china/shenzhou-11-crew-orbit-30-days-no-female-taikonauts

[5] Previous stations include the Salyut and Almaz series, Skylab, andMir.

[6]“China to Launch Space Telescope, Similar to “Hubble”, Only Field of View 300 Times Larger”

People’s Daily Online, 07 March, 2016, accessed at http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/0307/c90000-9026485.html

[7]Jacob Aron, “China wants to share its new space station with the world”, New Scientist, 21 June 2016, accessed at https://www.newscientist.com/article/2094636-china-wants-to-share-its-new-space-station-with-the-world/

[8] Long March 5 and 7 would use environmentally friendly fuels. They also have a modular design and share common components.

Courtesy: http://www.claws.in/1649/chinas-shenzhou-11-mission-%E2%80%93-a-step-closer-to-a-permanent-space-station-puneet-bhalla.html 
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