China fuels final space station module ahead of launch

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The third and final module for China’s space station has been filled with propellant in preparation for its journey to orbit later this month.

The Mengtian experiment module arrived at the Wenchang spaceport on the southern island of Hainan in August and has already undergone assembly and testing. The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced that the module was loaded with propellant on Oct. 9 ahead of its trip to space.

Mengtian will use the propellant to help it rendezvous and dock with the two, already-orbiting modules of the Tiangong space station. China launched the core module, named Tianhe, in April 2021 and sent the Wentian experiment module into orbit in July this year.

Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”) is a 58.7-foot-long (17.9 m) and roughly 48,500 pounds (22 metric tons) structure designed mainly to host an array of science racks and experiments. 

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The module also carries two solar arrays which together have a total wingspan of over 180 feet (55 meters) and help provide power for Tiangong.

The module will launch from Wenchang on a Long March 5B rocket. CMSA did not offer a target launch date but launch is expected later in October.

After docking at Tiangong, the new module will be transpositioned from a forward docking port to a lateral port using a purpose-made powered mechanical device in a maneuver similar to that performed with the Wentian module on Sept 30. This will complete the construction of the T-shaped Tiangong orbital outpost.

Notably, the huge first stages of the three previously launched Long March 5B rockets have entered orbit and made high-profile uncontrolled reentries around a week after launch. The fiery first stage reentry from the Wentian module launch in July was spotted by onlookers in Malaysia and Indonesia.

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China plans to keep the Tiangong space station constantly occupied for at least a decade and is looking to open up the orbital facility to commercial missions and tourist visits.

The first crew handover is expected late this year, when the three astronauts belonging to the ongoing Shenzhou 14 mission welcome aboard the Shenzhou 15 crew.

The completed Tiangong, with visiting cargo and Shenzhou crewed spacecraft docked, will be around 20% as massive as the International Space Station, which here on Earth would weigh about 460 tons (417 metric tonnes).

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