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[Discussion] Tiangong's Future: China Unveils Plans for Space Station Expansion

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In a report by SpaceNews, China's aspirations to be a space superpower took a significant leap as they announced expansive plans for the Tiangong space station. Revealed at the 47th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) has outlined a grand vision to amplify Tiangong's capacity and functionality.

Doubling Module Capacity

Currently operating with three modules, each weighing approximately 22 tons, the Tiangong is set for an upgrade. Zhang Qiao from CAST mentioned, “We aim to construct a six-module assembly, cumulatively weighing around 180 tons, in the upcoming years.” The anticipated addition would mean that Tiangong's mass would be just over a third of the International Space Station (ISS), which has been in operation since its first module, Zarya, launched in 1998.

The road map for this upgrade includes an initial launch of a multi-functional expansion module with six docking ports. This innovative module is expected to anchor itself at the forward port of the Tianhe core module, paving the way for the addition of full-size modules. As per SpaceNews, these enhancements are projected to materialize in about four years.

Co-Orbiting Advancements and Inflatable Modules

Further enriching its technological landscape, China also envisions the launch of a Hubble-class co-orbiting space telescope, dubbed Xuntian, around 2024. This state-of-the-art telescope will have the capability to dock with Tiangong for a gamut of tasks including maintenance, refueling, repairs, and upgrades. Zhang further hinted at more spacecraft likely to co-orbit with the Chinese space station (CSS), iterating the pivotal role the CSS will play as a “space home port."

Moreover, there's chatter about the development of inflatable modules that would serve as potential habitats and essential verification for crewed lunar expeditions.

Broadening Horizons

While the Tiangong's growth seems promising, China is also juggling several other formidable space endeavors. Their ambitious roadmap includes dispatching astronauts to the moon by 2030, establishing an International Lunar Research Station in the following decade, and orchestrating a Mars sample return mission. The latter may not be as intricate as the joint NASA-ESA MSR project but is deemed highly complex.

The overarching theme of China's space strategy seems to hinge on collaboration and cooperation. Lyu Congming, a prominent figure in China's human spaceflight program, remarked on the initiation of over 100 scientific research projects for Tiangong, with international cooperation being channeled through the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Moreover, there have been hints of collaboration with the European Space Agency.

China's human spaceflight agency, CMSEO, has also indicated its interest in commercializing Tiangong's potential, including space tourism. A crucial revelation was China's openness to international astronauts visiting their space station, although no further details on this front were provided.

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