Tasks For Tiangong
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Nov 23, 2010
China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory will launch at some point in early 2011. This spacecraft will later host crews of Chinese astronauts launched aboard Shenzhou spacecraft. We have seen images of the Tiangong module, but we have few clues to what sort of work will be performed aboard it. In the absence of any official list of hardware or tasks, it's worthwhile taking an educated guess.
One set of instruments on Tiangong is already known. The laboratory holds two small telescopes, clearly visible in video footage. Both are pointed at the ground, indicating they will be used for Earth observation.
These instruments could be actively operated by Chinese astronauts aboard the station, but it's probable that they will be mostly operated by remote control from Earth. These telescopes will probably be used more than any other instruments aboard the laboratory. They require no crew to tend them, and consume relatively little resources.
The laboratory module is fairly small, and much of the room will probably be taken up with logistics and crew support equipment. There will need to be storage space for food and other consumables. Two crews are expected to be dispatched to the laboratory, on Shenzhou 9 and 10. Both will fly in 2012.
For reasons of habitable volume and logistics, stays on board the laboratory are expected to be relatively short. The size of the module and the limited crew time will rule out many experiments that need to be monitored for long periods, or require huge amounts of equipment.
For this reason, as well as the operational requirements of the space program, this author believes that many of the experiments conducted inside Tiangong will be performed on the astronauts themselves. There will be medical checks throughout the stay, which will probably be around two weeks.
Medical monitoring equipment and sample collection systems (such as blood sampling) are relatively light, small and easy to operate. Sight, hearing, touch and perception will all be studied. Doctors in Mission Control will probably liaise with the astronauts in real time as they perform these experiments.
China has a strong tradition of exposing plant seeds to space, and monitoring their germination on Earth. China has reported interesting results from these experiments, which have sometimes produced stronger growth. There will almost certainly be seed packages carried aboard Tiangong 1. They are small and easy to manage. Crews can return them to Earth.
Some plant seeds will probably be cultivated aboard the station. Germination could be carried out over the course of a single expedition, and the results would look good in news reports. This requires little space or complex equipment.
There could also be experiments involving small animals or insects. Perhaps China would like to hatch silkworms in space. Spermatoza or ova for larger animals could be carried in phials and returned to Earth.
Tiangong 1 is unlikely to carry anything that could be potentially dangerous to the astronauts. This means we can probably rule out biological experiments involving pathogens, or toxic chemicals. Such
substances can be handled in space when large laboratory facilities are present, but they could be difficult to manage in such a small module.
A traditional technique of space experimentation involves exposing items to open space, then retrieving them. It is difficult to see how this could be achieved on Tiangong. There seems to be no facility for allowing astronauts to take spacewalks from Tiangong or the Shenzhou spacecraft that will dock with it.
Examinations of images of Tiangong reveal no airlock for astronauts, and no evidence of any smaller scientific airlock for deploying experiments.
Spacewalking was performed on the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008, and it required a lot of work and equipment. The astronauts who visit Tiangong will be busy enough without needing to worry about spacewalks, and it's doubtful that spacesuits for such a purpose will even be carried.
The fact that two expeditions will visit Tiangong within a year suggests some interesting possibilities. Some long-duration experiments could be set up by the first crew, then allowed to run for weeks or months while the station is unoccupied. The second crew could then examine and collect results from these experiments.
One obvious choice for such an experiment would be plant growth, assuming that an automatic greenhouse was installed in the module. This could also allow some types of crystal growth to be performed in sealed containers.
Finally, the Tiangong spacecraft itself will be an engineering experiment. How well does it operate? Can it remain spaceworthy and inhabitable for months? Sending two crews over the course of a year will be a very good test of this. The astronauts will also probably perform health checks on their spacecraft and evaluate the performance of various sub-systems.
There could be improvements in food and food preparation systems, as well as changes to hygiene and toilet systems. The final crew could also swab the laboratory for microorganisms and fungi, to evaluate the buildup of these organisms in a sealed spacecraft over a long period.
Later Tiangong modules will probably carry different equipment sets, and perform different experiments. Exactly what China does on these missions will probably be influenced by the results from the first Tiangong experiments. We don't have long to wait before the first experiments begin.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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