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China’s Tiangong Space Station Is About to Double in Size
The station will get three new modules over the next few years.
SYFY’s The Ark (streaming now on Peacock) follows the crew of the Ark One on a one-way trip to Proxima centauri. Crafting a ship capable of carrying a large crew to another star would be a massive undertaking requiring global cooperation. Our closest real-world analogue is the International Space Station, the largest spacecraft humanity has ever built.
The massive orbiting science laboratory was constructed and has been maintained by five collaborating space agencies and more than a dozen nations. Moreover, it has been continuously inhabited for more than two decades, making it our longest running human experiment in space. That experiment will end along with the decade, when the station is decommissioned in 2030. Fortunately, a new generation of space stations is already in progress and China’s Tiangong is preparing for a huge upgrade.
China’s Tiangong Station Is Preparing for a Growth Spurt
Tiangong orbits 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, slightly higher than the ISS’s orbit of 254 miles (408 kilometers). It went into operation in 2022 and has a total of three modules capable of supporting up to three astronauts at any given time. Recently, China announced plans to double the size of the station to six modules, opening up space to additional astronauts from international partners.
The expansion was announced at the 47th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan by Zhang Qiao, from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). Zhang stated that the upgraded station would weigh an estimated 180 tons and would include the addition of an expansion module with six docking ports. China also plans to launch a space telescope capable of docking with Tiangong for maintenance and repairs.
The upgrades are expected to occur over the next few years, just as the ISS is winding down, but it’s unclear who, if anyone, will take China up on their offer. Previously the European Space Agency expressed an interest in sending astronauts to Tiangong, but have since reconsidered.
“For the moment we have neither the budgetary nor the political, let’s say, green light or intention to engage in a second space station; that is participating on the Chinese space station,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher, via SpaceNews. Likewise, NASA is committed to the ISS through 2030 and has noted an intention to transition to commercial partners for access to low-Earth orbit after the ISS comes down. Meanwhile, NASA is planning the construction of the lunar Gateway, an orbiting space station around the Moon.
Who knows, maybe we’ll get a whole bunch of stations up there and then decide to join them all together into a mega station, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets style. If The Ark teaches us anything about traveling through space, it’s that we can only make it if we work together.
Catch the complete first season of The Ark streaming now on Peacock!