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What's Next, Tiangong?
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 09 2013

illustration only

Earlier this year, signs appeared that China was reshuffling its Tiangong space laboratory program. The first Tiangong lab module was launched in 2011, and two astronaut crews lived aboard it. The Tiangong 1 laboratory has now completed its mission of demonstrating the basic technologies required for a space station and is expected to re-enter any time now.

China's original plan called for three Tiangong laboratories, with the next ones each successively more advanced than its predecessor. Tiangong 3 would be the final step before China launched the first module of the Chinese Space Station, a large modular structure that should be completed around 2020.

The plan sounded logical. China would steadily improve its capabilities for a permanent base in space, just as it had steadily improved its Shenzhou crew-carrying spacecraft. Then changes appeared in media reports and technical presentations. As has happened before, China did not explicitly spell out its plans, and analysts were forced to try to make sense of a rough collage of facts and figures.

After a conference presentation by China's first astronaut, this analyst (and others) concluded that China had telescoped the Tiangong program. It seemed that China would delete the intermediate-stage Tiangong 2 module and go straight for the advanced Tiangong 3, which would now be re-branded as the new Tiangong 2.

There could have been good reason for this. Tiangong 1 was highly successful, and China could have decided that their technology was ready for a larger step. Deleting an intermediate module would save time and money for the program. Such a revised program made sense and it was easy to accept that this would happen.

Now, this analyst is highly confused about what is really happening with the Tiangong program. And so are other analysts outside of China. Will there be one or two more Tiangongs? What will they (or it) be like? How many docking ports will they (or it) have? Will there be refueling experiments with a cargo vessel? All of these questions are being asked, but it's hard to obtain or even deduce solid answers.

There have been intriguing reports and video clips circulating in the Chinese media. But the recent International Astronautical Congress in Beijing failed to clear up the confusion about their program. The more material circulated, the less clear the situation becomes. Why all the uncertainty?

This analyst is beginning to believe that there's a simpler explanation for the Tiangong reshuffle. The Chinese themselves are still revising their plans and haven't settled on a final outcome.

China is currently juggling with the development of a lot of new hardware. Apart from the Tiangong modules, there are cargo vessels that are possibly designed to fly to a future Tiangong and also to the future Chinese Space Station. China is also developing its new fleet of Long March 5 modular rockets.

These new launchers will have the potential to loft large-sized Tiangong modules into orbit, tasks that would be impossible with China's current fleet of rockets. But the Long March 5 has yet to make its debut, and it is still not entirely clear when it will be operational. We also have other rockets such as the smaller but impressive Long March 7 and the Long March 6. The introduction of these new rockets will allow mission plans that were previously either impossible or impractical.

China could have more options in the near future if things go well. Then again, all these new rockets could be grounded for longer than anticipated. With so much uncertainty surrounding China's rocket fleet, it makes sense to leave all options open for the Tiangong program.

There could also be less technical factors at work. China renewed its leadership team in 2012. In the past, this analyst suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping would be preoccupied with more Earthly matters in the first stages of his rule, and would probably make no major changes to China's space program. What if this is not the case? Has Mr Xi ordered a review of the program? Given the classified nature of such planning, it's impossible to know how far up the leadership chain the Chinese space program is managed.

In the meantime, China will need to settle on a plan fairly soon. Whether they share the details of that plan in the near future or not remains to be seen. It's entirely possible that we will not know the true nature of the next Tiangong module until the next pre launch media campaign is set in motion.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.


Related Links
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
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