The China National Space Administration is preparing to launch two new space station modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, on separate Long March 5B rockets in the coming months.
Preparations for both missions are advancing well. The third Long March 5B rocket has completed the final assembly and testing and will launch Wentian near the middle of the year. The fourth Long March 5B Y4 is undergoing final assembly and will launch Mengtian in the second half of 2022, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).
More than 15 of the launches will use the Long March 2D rocket configuration, according to CASC. The Long March 2D is designed to carry payloads weighing up to 2,900 pounds (about 1.3 metric tons) into a polar sun-synchronous orbit.
The two modules have a mass of more than 44,100 pounds (20,000 kilograms) each, and are primarily designed to host science experiments. Wentian also has new airlock facilities for extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, and will add a second, smaller robotic arm to the space station.
“After the T-shaped structure is formed, we will fully test the functions and performances of the space station as a whole. We estimate that the space station will enter the operation phase at the end of the year,” Bai Linhou, space station system deputy chief designer at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told CCTV.
The 134-foot-tall (41-meter) Long March 2D rocket that carried Shiyan 13 into orbit lifted off with more than 650,000 pounds of thrust from its hydrazine-fueled first stage engines. Heading south from Taiyuan over Chinese territory, the two-stage launcher climbed through the atmosphere accelerated to a speed of nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers) per second.
China will also launch two Tianzhou cargo spacecraft and two Shenzhou crewed missions as part of six space station missions planned for 2022.
Overall China is planning to launch 140 spacecraft on more than 50 launches in 2022, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which owns CAST and CALT. CASC launched 48 Long March rockets in 2021.
CASC, China’s largest state-owned space industry contractor, said the Long March 2D rocket delivered the Shiyan 13 satellite into orbit. Chinese officials did not disclose details about the purpose of the mission, other than claiming Shiyan 13 will be used for space environment data collection and technology tests.
Late 2022 is expected to see China’s first crew rotation when two crewed spacecraft will be in orbit at the same time. Shenzhou 15 will launch and dock with Tianhe late in the year, joining the crew of Shenzhou 14 onboard. This will mean China will have six astronauts in orbit at the same time.
The U.S. military, which publishes orbital data online, said it tracked the Shiyan 13 satellite in an orbit between 287 miles and 309 miles (463 by 498 kilometers) at an inclination of 97.4 degrees to the equator.
Assuming the Shenzhou 13 mission is completed safely, around March or April, the 14th Long March 2F will later launch Shenzhou 14, following delivery of supplies aboard the Tianzhou 4 cargo spacecraft.
Three more astronauts on China’s Shenzhou 13 spacecraft launched and docked with the station’s Tianhe core module in October to begin a six-month stay, the longest China human spaceflight mission to date.
This year, China aims to launch two more large space station modules — each weighing more than 20 tons at launch — on Long March 5B rockets from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island. The Wentian and Mengtian pressurized modules will adding living space and scientific laboratory capabilities to the Chinese space station.