China’s Space Station Is Almost Complete–How Will Scientists Use It?

China’s Space Station Is Almost Complete–How Will Scientists Use It?

China has almost completed its space station Tiangong. Monday will see the launch of the third and final module into low Earth orbit. The station, only the second laboratory in orbit, is expected to host more than 1,000 scientific experiments over its lifetime of at least 10 years. These include studies on the effects of microgravity upon living tissues and fire behavior.

Building a space station was a huge achievement, says Paulo de Souza of Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia. He says, “It’s amazing.” The space station has created a new scientific playground in China for Chinese researchers.

Researchers in other countries will also be able to access the orbiting laboratory, according to Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist from the Australian National University. China has selected nine international experiments to fly to the outpost through a collaborative project with the United Nations, developed by researchers from Japan, Russia, India and Mexico, among others.

Sprouting plants

The final module, Mengtian is one of two that can host scientific experiments. The other, Wentian was launched in July. Together, Mengtian and Wentian will make up the space station’s arms by docking with the core module, Tianhe, which has been orbiting Earth since April 2021. Because the Mengtian module is “flying along sideways, which requires a lot more energy to keep it oriented”, Jonathan McDowell, an Astrophysicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that it is essential to restore symmetry to the station.

Several astronauts and cargo missions have visited the outpost. A three-person crew lives there now.

On board are more than 20 mini-laboratories fitted with centrifuges, cold chambers reaching temperatures as low as -80 degC, a high-temperature furnace, multiple lasers and an optical atomic clock. These facilities will be used for experiments similar to the carried out at the International Space Station (ISS). This includes investigations into the effects of long-term confinement in low earth orbit on astronauts’ health, the prevention of fires on different materials, and the quantum property of gases. Three facilities are located outside the station and will allow for the study of the effects of cosmic radiation upon plants and microorganisms. China is not a member of the ISS, and its astronauts have not been able access the station. The US prohibits NASA, a participating agency on the ISS, to engage in bilateral partnerships.

A new space laboratory allows researchers to repeat experiments on the ISS to see if the results can be reproduced. De Souza hopes that the findings will be made available to the public. He said, “I’m waiting on the results.”

Experiments galore

More than 25 research projects are already under way, including those to study the effects of microgravity on plant cells, bone and muscle, as well as on molten materials, together with protein-crystallization experiments, says Zhang Wei, a director at the Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. Chinese state news media also reported that the crew took some 12,000 seeds, including alfalfa, oats and fungal seeds, to the space station, exposing them to cosmic radiation and microgravity for six months, before returning them in April to be planted on Earth. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences also reported that rice seedlings and thale cress have begun to sprout in Wentian in July.

Mengtian will launch a Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang launch station in southern China. The rocket will probably perform an uncontrolled reentry into the atmosphere and several tonnes of debris could crash somewhere on Earth’s surface, as has happened with previous missions using this type of rocket. Scientists are concerned that the debris could land in densely populated areas. McDowell says that the risk is real. “Fortunately, most of the surface of the Earth is ocean or empty land, so the chance of hitting a heavily populated a

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