Shenzhou 12 space station: China’s heavenly palace

June 21, 2021 11:33 AM

Now China has added another ‘feather in the cap’, when on 17 Jun 2021, three Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) entered the made in China Space Station (CSS).

Shenzhou 12 space stationChina’s Shenzhou-12 capsule had taken off atop its Long March 2F rocket with three astronauts. It was an almost seven hours of journey to reach the yet to be fully established space station. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr Ajey Lele, 

In October 2003 (Shenzhou 5 mission), China became the only third country after the United States and the erstwhile USSR to put a man in space in an indigenously developed spacecraft. This was a ‘feather in the cap’ for China’s space programme. During the last two decades China’s space programme has seen an expositional growth with many success stories. Now China has added another ‘feather in the cap’, when on 17 Jun 2021, three Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) entered the made in China Space Station (CSS). More than a decade back, China had announced the details of their space station programme. It was mentioned that the station is likely to get completed by 2020–2022. It is really praiseworthy that even in the Covid-19 period China is able to stick to its timeline.

China’s Shenzhou-12 capsule had taken off atop its Long March 2F rocket with three astronauts. It was an almost seven hours of journey to reach the yet to be fully established space station. Amongst these three astronauts who have worked with the Chinese air force, two have been in space in earlier missions too and one of the two have even an experience of undertaking a spacewalk. This space station is called Tiangong or Heavenly Palace and is located 390 km above the earth’s surface. It is a 66-tonne, multi-module space station with a designed lifespan of around 10 years. The first part of this station was launched during Apr 2021 and is called Tianhe. It provides power and propulsion and contains the life support technologies and living accommodations required for the visiting astronauts.

China’s space station programme is a very systematic and well organised programme. Before this mission, two prototype space station missions were undertaken. Tiangong-1 was the first experimental module, which orbited the earth during the 2011 to 2018 period. It served as a crewed laboratory and assessed conduct of orbital rendezvous and checking on docking capabilities. This module was to operate for about two years, but its lifespan was extended by two more years. Subsequently, Tiangong-1 was to be deorbited and to undertake a controlled re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere and burn up owing to very high temperatures. However, China’s space agency had lost control of the station. During Apr 2018, this module re-entered the earth’s envelope and part of it had fallen in the southern Pacific Ocean, close to Tahiti. Tiangong-2 is also known to have served its purpose and essentially played a key role towards testing important technologies mainly for the conduct of future missions. Tiangong-2 was launched during September 2016 and got deorbited during July 2019.

It is expected that in a one year’s time, China would be able to fully establish the Tiangong space station. During the 2021-2022 period, there would be a total 11 launches and they would include three human missions. The main task would be to launch the remaining two lab modules and finally make the entire space station operational. The principal job for the present mission is to make the 22.5-tonne Tianhe module operational.

The astronaut trio would be also undertaking various experiments, essentially associated with technology verification. There is an international element associated with these experimentations. China had offered an opportunity to various scientific agencies globally, to conduct experiments on board of the China Space Station (CSS). It was a competition jointly organised by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). Very good global response was received. During Jun 2019, the results of this competition were announced. Along with a few others, two Indian institutes have won this competition and their projects are now part of China’s space station programme. Bengaluru based Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) has its equipment onboard of Tiangong for studying the area between stars and the Indian Institute of Technology based at BHU, Varanasi’s experiment is there for learning the behaviour of partially visible fluids in microgravity. China has also announced that they would offer an opportunity for astronauts from other countries to visit their space station after the project gets fully established.

It is important to view China’s space station programme not in isolation, but at the backdrop of its overall space agenda. At present, China’s rovers (robotic equipment) are operating on the Moon and Martian surface. Now with the first phase success of the Tiangong space station programme, humans from China have also started operating in space. China has major ambitions of making human presence on the surface of the Moon in less than a decade’s time, say by 2030. Looking at China’s abilities to mostly maintain the deadlines of their various space projects, it is very likely that China would make the human presence on the surface of the Moon as planned. Possibly, the international space station (ISS) could remain operational at the most till 2028. This means by 2030, there could be Chinese nationals walking the Moon and the only space station operational would be not an international, but a (Chinese) national space station.

(The author is Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. He can be reached at:

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