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After moving into the main module of China’s Tianhe space station for more than a month, the Shenzhou-14 crew of three taikonauts are now just hours away from completing their first major missions in orbit, receiving the Wentian laboratory module and adding it to the three-module Chinese space station.

On Sunday at 2:22 p.m., a giant, heavy-duty Long March-5B Y3 launch vehicle lifted off from the Wenchang Cosmodrome with a flutter of coconut trees off the coast of South China’s tropical island province of Hainan. Wentian – the country’s first laboratory space station module – into a given orbit.

China launches the Wentian laboratory module for the space station. Photo: Fang Wei/GT

After an eight-minute flight, the Wentian module separated from the rocket body and entered its intended orbit, marking the success of the launch, the Chinese Manned Space Agency said in a statement it provided to the Global Times on Sunday.

Wentian is expected to perform a semi-autonomous rendezvous and docking with the main cabin of the Tianhe space station at the forward port, and in a few hours, the main module of the Tianhe space station will receive a new spacecraft for the first time, while the crew is on board.

Named the “heaviest comrade” among all single space modules in active service in the world, the Wentian laboratory module is the second of three basic design modules of the Chinese space station after the first 16-meter Tianhe main module launched in China. April 2021.

The future design of the expansion of the Chinese space station, which, according to China’s manned space authorities, will weigh more than 180 tons. Now that Wentian is docked at Tianhe, the space station weighs about 50 tons.

With the complex systems and functions equipped by Wentian, the laboratory module has been regarded by some observers as a “mini space station”. Can the universal module technology provide the ability to add new modules to the Chinese space station in the future to further expand its scope and functions?

Liang Xiaofeng, Wentian’s chief power designer, told the Global Times that from a technical standpoint, Wentian has paved the way for expansion, but future plans will be in line with the overall design. “We will have to analyze and understand the needs of each plan, but we have definitely acquired key technologies. [for module expansion] in reserve”.

New modules to be added to the T-shaped structure could be foreign spacecraft such as laboratory modules or manned spacecraft, senior space expert Pang Zhihao told the Global Times.

Summarizing the functions of the laboratory module, state-owned space giant China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC), the main contractor for the space station program, said in a statement sent to the Global Times that Wentian is mainly designed with the ability to unify the management and control of the station assembly, as well as the ability to dock , transposition and parking in the main cabin. It will also support the stay of the taikonauts in orbit by providing a special airlock cabin and an emergency shelter to ensure their safety during spacewalks or EVAs, as well as supporting various scientific experiments in and out of the cabins.

To begin with, docking Wentian to the space station combination will instantly double the living and working area for the taikonauts. In addition, the larger diameter airlock at Wentian will make it easier for the crew to go into space, which is an obvious change for the crew, among other things.

The key features of the Wentian platform are the same as those on Tianhe, which means that they will serve as a backup of each other, and both of them are able to cover all the tasks required for assembly, the CASC said.

With a launch weight of 23 tons, Wentian consists of three parts: a working cabin, an airlock cabin and a resource cabin, with a total length of 17.9 meters and a diameter of 4.2 meters.

This is about the same weight as a Beijing subway car, even more than Tianhe’s main cab, which is 16.6 meters long and weighs 22.5 tons. Wentian is also heavier than any other single-module flight-capable spacecraft that remains in active service, including those deployed to the International Space Station, according to CASC.

The Wentian work cabin is the largest pressurized cabin in China to date, including three sleeping areas and one sanitary area. Once docked, the space station will be able to accommodate six astronauts. That is, when the crew of the Shenzhou 15 mission meets Shenzhou 14 for a spin in space, Li Jinlin, chief space suit designer in the China Manned Space Agency Astronaut System, told Global Times.

The airlock cabin has a unique shape – square on the outside and round on the inside. This is an “upgraded version” of what is in the main module, expanding the “fitting room” for changing astronauts into spacesuits and preparing for spacewalks, as well as a gate with a diameter of one meter, providing more convenient exit and entry for astronauts, and also allows them move larger equipment outside the cab.

Thus, the airlock cabin of Wentian will become the main exit-entry point for spacewalks, and the previous one in Tianhe will serve as a backup.

Meanwhile, with two exit-entry cabins, it will greatly improve reliability and better ensure the safety of taikonauts in the event of an emergency during extravehicular activities, Li said.

Outside the airlock cabin are 22 EVA interfaces. In the next decade, experimental payloads delivered to the space station will be accurately “wired” to their respective interfaces using robotic arms and will no longer need to be manually controlled by astronauts, CASC Global Times reported.

In addition to the 22 interfaces, the Wentian Lab also has eight experimental cabinets. The main focus will be on the study of space life sciences, which can support the growth, development, genetics and aging of many species of plants, animals and microorganisms in space conditions, – said L. Congmin, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Vice President. This was announced to Global Times by the chief designer of the space utilization system of the Chinese manned space program.

According to Lev, more than 10 research areas are planned for Wentian and more than 40 scientific projects have been created.

Scheduled to launch in October, another Mengtian lab module will be focused on microgravity science research and equipped with experimental cabinets for fluid physics, materials science, combustion science, fundamental physics, and space technology experiments.

Another highlight of Wentian’s lab module is a small, five-meter-long robotic arm mounted outside the airlock cabin. With seven degrees of freedom, the kit has higher accuracy and flexibility to “grab” small to medium-sized equipment and is capable of more delicate operations than the larger robot arm with Tianhe’s module.

The weight and length of the small manipulator is about half that of the large manipulator of Tianhe main cabin, and the lifting capacity is about one eighth of the weight of the large manipulator. When connected, they will have a total length of 15 meters and in the future will be able to “climb” over all three modules of Tianhe, Wentian and Mengtian.

In addition to its very large size, Wentian has a set of unusually long wings – flexible solar panels with double degrees of freedom. The full wingspan is over 55 meters, more than half a football field, a new record for solar arrays used for Chinese spacecraft. Each panel has an unfolded area of about 110 square meters.

The two solar panels will harvest more solar energy efficiently, generating more than 430 kilowatt-hours per day on average and providing enough power to run the space station. If placed on the ground, the solar panels’ daily electricity generation is enough to meet the electricity demand of an average Beijing household for a month and a half.

By the completion of the space station, one of Tianhe’s solar panels will be moved to the back of Wentian, by which time the main module will be solely focused on station operation, with the laboratory module becoming the main “energy” module. house.”

Published By Odoh Dominic Chukwuemeka

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