China’s Tiangong space station: what it is, what it’s for, and how to see it

China Manned Space Engineering Office

Paulo de Souza, Griffith University

China’s space program is making impressive progress. The country only launched its first crewed flight in 2003, more than 40 years after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. China’s first Mars mission was in 2020, half a century after the US Mariner 9 probe flew past the red planet.

But the rising Asian superpower is catching up fast: flying missions to the Moon and Mars; launching heavy-lift rockets; building a new space telescope set to fly in 2024; and, most recently, putting the first piece of the Tiangong space station (the name means Heavenly Palace) into orbit.

What is the Tiangong space station?

Tiangong is the successor to China’s Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space laboratories, launched in 2011 and 2016, respectively. It will be built on a modular design, similar to the International Space Station operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. When complete, Tiangong will consist of a core module attached to two laboratories with a combined weight of nearly 70 tonnes.

The core capsule, named Tianhe (Harmony of Heavens), is about the size of a bus. Containing life support and control systems, this core will be the station’s living quarters. At 22.5 tonnes, the Tianhe capsule is the biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever constructed.

The Tianhe module will form the core of the space station, with other modules to be added later to increase the size of the station and make more experiments possible. Saggitarius A / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The capsule will be central to the space station’s future operations. In 2022, two slightly smaller modules are expected to join Tianhe to extend the space station and make it possible to carry out various scientific and technological experiments. Ultimately, the station will include 14 internal experiment racks and 50 external ports for studies of the space environment.

Tianhe will be just one-fifth the size of the International Space Station, and will host up to three crew members at a time. The first three “taikonauts” (as Chinese astronauts are often known) are expected to take up residence in June.

Read more: How to live in space: what we’ve learned from 20 years of the International Space Station

A troubled launch

Tianhe was launched from China’s Hainan island on April 29 aboard a Long March 5B rocket.

These rockets have one core stage and four boosters, each of which is nearly 28 metres tall - the height of a nine-storey building - and more than 3 metres wide. The Long March 5B weighs about 850 tonnes when fully fuelled, and can lift a 25-tonne payload into low Earth orbit.

During the Tianhe launch, the gigantic core stage of the rocket – weighing around 20 tonnes – spun out of control, eventually splashing down more than a week later in the Indian Ocean. The absence of a control system for the return of the rocket to Earth has raised criticism from the international community.

Read more: A giant piece of space junk is hurtling towards Earth. Here’s how worried you should be

However, these rockets are a key element of China’s short-term ambitions in space. They are planned to be used to deliver modules and crew to Tiangong, as well as launching exploratory probes to the Moon and eventually Mars.

Despite leaving behind an enormous hunk of space junk, Tianhe made it safely to orbit. An hour and 13 minutes after launch, its solar panels started operating and the module powered up.

Completion and future

Tianhe is now sitting in low-Earth orbit (about 400km above the ground), waiting for the first of the ten scheduled supply flights over the next 18 months that it will take to complete the Tiangong station.

A pair of experiment modules named Wentian (Quest for Heavens) and Mengtian (Dreaming of Heavens) are planned for launch in 2022. Although the station is being built by China alone, nine other nations have already signed on to fly experiments aboard Tiangong.

How to see the Tiangong space station

Tianhe is already visible with the naked eye, if you know where and when to look.

A video shot from New Zealand shows the tumbling chunk of rocket from Tianhe’s launch, followed by the bright dot of the space station module itself.

To find out when the space station might be visible from where you are, you can check websites such as, which show you the station’s current location and its predicted path for the next 10 days. Note that these predictions are based on models that can change quite quickly, because the space station is slowly falling in its orbit and periodically boosts itself back up to higher altitudes.

The station orbits Earth every 91 minutes. Once you find the time of the station’s next pass over your location (at night – you won’t be able to see it in the daytime), check the direction it will be coming from, find yourself a dark spot away from bright lights, and look out for a tiny, fast-moving spark of light trailing across the heavens.

Paulo de Souza, Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Climate believer
May 12, 2021 3:37 am

“But the rising Asian superpower is catching up fast”

Rising? what a joke.

I know the OECD have China on the same list of “developing countries” as Eritrea, but to my knowledge Eritrea don’t have a space station in orbit around the Earth.

A superpower is NOT a phu-king “developing country”

Reply to  Climate believer
May 12, 2021 4:51 am

Well, yes, it is rising. Some 7% a year. Quite steadily, no saturation to see.

Bryan A
Reply to  Climate believer
May 12, 2021 8:45 am

China is only a Developing Country because they’re DEVELOPING stolen technologies and passing them off as their own. AND they Develop and Deploy most of the world’s Cheap Crap

Ron Long
May 12, 2021 3:42 am

If China wants to join the space study insitu crowd, fine. However, given that it’s China, that’s a big if. This space station will certainly gain the attention of various space-directed cameras, such as the one on Mauna Loa (next to the CO2 monitor). Eventually the purpose of the Chinese Space Station will be know.

May 12, 2021 3:53 am

I suppose Ariane 5 junk is ¨our space junk¨, crashing down, complete with a treasure of satellites.
D.C. had the insane idea to sell the ISS which is heading for decommissioning. Russia said no, it will do its own – with China?
So what will NASA do now? Biden will kill softly its Artemis program echoing his mentor Obama ¨we don’t need no fancy technology¨ – what ground huggers!
So suck it up guys – the world moves on with or without the collapsing USA and London…

Arming the US Space Force, complete with jungle fatigues, is nuts!

Last edited 1 year ago by bonbon
Wayne Townsend
May 12, 2021 5:46 am

Looking at the video, the rhythmic change in brightness seems to suggest some sort of spinning or rotation. It has solar panels that might explain the change in luminosity. I would think that those would need to be steadily oriented to the sun, not spinning. What am I missing?

Last edited 1 year ago by Wayne Townsend
Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Wayne Townsend
May 12, 2021 8:45 am

It is just the core up there, no taikonauts aboard yet. So power demand is likely very low, and there is no need yet to stabilize the spacecraft’s orientation with respect to Earth’s horizon.

If solar arrays are deployed from the core (anyone know for sure?), just intermittent solar illumination of those arrays probably provides all the recharging power needed right now.

The situation will change drastically when stable docking is needed to get taikonauts aboard or when the next module is to be added to the “station”.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Wayne Townsend
May 13, 2021 1:42 am

That’s the tumbling rocket casing – as explained in the piece…
…so you are missing the facts.

Last edited 1 year ago by Old Goat
May 12, 2021 6:08 am

Mariner-9 orbited Mars. It did not “fly past it”. I worked that mission.

May 12, 2021 6:35 am

The most important question for Americans is: how should their country respond to the fact that it will relatively soon be Number Two in the world, in terms of both economic and military strength.

People often like to avoid dealing with bad news: “It’s just a lump, it will probably go away”. (Stolen from Fred Reed.) But this is almost always a bad idea.

The Left is busy hollowing out core American institutions, such as its intelligence, military and police systems. This could, in theory, be reversed, although it probably won’t be. But the rise of China is not going to be reversed, no matter what happens in America.

And the scary thing is this: a declining super-power, whose ruling elite has grown up assuming it is Number One and always will be, can, in its anger and frustration, do things that would trigger a serious war.

Even if this is not a nuclear war, if America loses it — as it lost Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — that could trigger some very unpleasant internal developments.

The American idiot Left call the conservative half of the country ‘fascists’ and ‘white supremacists’. They have no idea what a real American fascist/white supremacist movement would look like: but they might get the chance. It would be a disaster for everyone, and not just in America.

In the meantime, get your AR15 while you can, and also a supply of potassium iodide pills.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Doug Hanlon
May 12, 2021 12:09 pm

Re-elect Trump as president and he will turn it all around. Again.

It’s all about leadership. Curretly, the USA doesn’t have any.

Trump is also looking better for Speaker of the House in early 2023.

May 12, 2021 6:40 am

I’m glad you published this: I now know when I should be hiding down in the old bomb shelter…

Reply to  griff
May 12, 2021 9:36 am

… your mom’s basement?

when did you leave? and how’s that going for you?

It doesn't add up...
May 12, 2021 6:55 am

Does anyone know if Stellarium is providing a track like they do for ISS?

Gordon A. Dressler
May 12, 2021 8:35 am

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So, one can only wonder why the CCP wants to reproduce the ISS, given that nothing of “great significance” has come from research aboard ISS in the span of 12 years since ISS became “operational” (i.e., since May 2009). Some argue scientific research aboard ISS goes back as far as 20 years ago.

The single exception that I can admit to my above general statement is that ISS has enabled the discovery of how single long-duration spaceflights (in the range of 200 to 340 continuous days) under micro-gravity conditions affects the physiology and health of both human males and human females.

Remember all those promises about new “super pure” materials and “perfect” crystals, wonder drugs, basic scientific discoveries, etc., etc., that were going to be forthcoming based on the micro-gravity environment that could only be obtained long-term by an orbiting space laboratory?

I am not aware of any such item that has entered production status or has been qualified as a true “breakthrough” discovery. Unlike NASA (ref: ),
I do not consider “gaining better understanding of” or “fundamental research on” or “providing insights into” or “jumpstarting research and satellite companies” or “advancing our knowledge of” to be equivalent to “scientific and technological breakthrough” science. But I am willing to be listen to arguments to the contrary.

Maybe Red China has a better plan . . . maybe not.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 12, 2021 9:37 am

See Robert Heinlein’s testimony before Congress. Marvel at the wonderful device you used to communicate your thoughts with the world. No U.S. space program would have resulted in multi-acre computers and 15 pound (just about… I don’t care how much… kilograms) telephones switched by minimum wage human operators in over and under heated, noisy rooms with a 20 year shorter life span. Nearly 35 years ago, Heinlein thought he’d have been dead several years before his testimony without the space program. Today, I’ve already outlived three of my grandparents’ and one of my parent’s life span.

None of that justifies continuing unreformed investment in the current, rampant scientific and financial corruption of NASA.

I bet that you do like dairy subsidies.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  dk_
May 12, 2021 2:06 pm


Get back to me when you have a cogent comment that is on-topic, OK?

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 12, 2021 2:44 pm

Okay. You don’t know what you are talking about. Your statements are similar if not identical to those of a dead politician, William Proxmire, who favored dairy subsidies for his constituancy over any other government spending, except possibly his salary.

You are communicating over this channel courtesy of advancements in science and engineering directly developed for and by the U.S. space program. You will most likely live longer because of the U.S. space program. You are most likely wealthier than your immediate ancestors because of advances that can be attributed directly to the U.S. space program. These claims have all been demonstrated and attested by authorities much smarter and better informed than either of us.

But because of Proxmires and fellow travellers, NASA is now at best as ineffective as any other government agency. On that, we agree. You advocate, somewhat, defunding NASA, declaring the corruption of the fish while leaving the head. The entire government is oversized and a failure. Removing one agency won’t fix it.

Last edited 1 year ago by dk_
Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  dk_
May 12, 2021 4:26 pm

dk_ posted” You are communicating over this channel courtesy of advancements in science and engineering directly developed for and by the U.S. space program.”

Hmmm . . . and here, all along, I’ve been told that it was either Al Gore or DARPA that invented the Internet . . . you know the “channel” I am currently using to make WUWT postings and replies to comments, like this one.

Now you’re telling me the Internet was “directly developed for and by the U.S space program” . . . wow, you’ve got your work cut out for you in correcting all that misinformation that is floating around.

And no, I never advocated defunding NASA (as is obvious to anyone reading my posts in this thread) . . . I only commented on the poor/negligible scientific returns humanity has received from ISS and for what reason the CCP would want to repeat this.

And lastly, you offend me deeply, sir, by associating my words (“similar if not identical to”, you say) with any politician, living or dead.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 12, 2021 5:12 pm

Right. I am not at my best, and conflated some of your comments with those another commenter. Target misaquired. Deep apologies presented. Mea Culpa.

You still write just a little like Proxmire.Fantastic advances available to the public are few, but small invisible, incremental technologies are many and take a while to appear. NASA’s 20 in 20 misses the best.

Darpa developed the internet based on electronics developed and sold to NASA and the military, which might have not otherwise gotten and moving. Bell labs made the same electronics available for telephone switching, which depended on mixed electro-mechanical devices and human operators before the AT&T equipment became common. British researchers developed smaller, more efficient computers, as did IBM, also using the same semi-conductor technology. DARPA developed internet technology to communicate over unreliable, but electronically switched, telephone networks. And yes, one of the early purposes for the Arpanet was to reestablish communications with space ground stations that were based with university astronomy lab-based observational satellites after a nuclear war took out large nodes of the telephone communications network and the human and mechanical operators.

To that end, Gore II took endless credit for voting twice, once in committee and once in Congress, for funding DARPA.

Much of DARPA work went to NASA and military contractors.

Flash Chemtrail
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
May 12, 2021 9:49 am

When you consider the costs of building and operating the ISS, it seems clear that this has been a huge waste of money. Think of all the actual science that could have been done with the billions (~120 billion) wasted on the ISS.

Of course NASA is busy wasting even more money on a big rocket and space capsule to launch women to the moon. What shall we learn this time around? Very likely the same thing we learned in the early 70’s. It is too expensive and there is no reason to send humans to the moon.

If NASA or others need to conduct fundamental research or advance our knowledge, simply follow the lead of the Air Force and build a inexpensive space plane (X-37B) or fleet of them. Load it full of your experiments and launch it into orbit.

Launching humans into space has produced what exactly? Historical footnotes? What has the US or Russia gained from several decades of doing this?

A perfect example of success is what NASA has done on Mars. Imagine what could be done with only half the funds that are wasted on manned space flight. Real science, real data, real accomplishments.

Red China does not have a better plan. Like the Russians with their space shuttle, the Chinese are simply following the US down the same silly rat hole.

D. Anderson
May 12, 2021 8:40 am

If you want to see it I recommend the app ‘Sky Guide”. Excellent.

May 12, 2021 9:11 am

So let me get this straight, a country using modern technology, significant amounts copied from other nations has placed a station which is only 20% the size of the current ISS is a breakthrough. This is like saying a company which was given the latest technology schematics, parts, and manufacturing has cloned a simpler smaller system to be an earth shattering event. I am unimpressed. The ISS is cool, but as others have said, it is more of a placeholder than an active path to the future.

I am not convinced that this is truly an advancement, much like the Soviet version of the space shuttle. All show no real usefulness.

John Bell
May 12, 2021 9:27 am

If you can launch rockets and space stations, you are more than a developing nation.

May 12, 2021 9:45 am

China is not a trustworthy partner nor signatory to any written or tacit agreement to limit the military development of any exoatmospheric technology. Terry Pratchett’s satirical character of the conquering general embedded his threat in the false inanity “Why, I can see YOUR house from here!”

May 12, 2021 10:27 am

I doubt China needed to steal technology to make this happen. Yes they steal technology but most of this technology has been made readily available by the West. They also probably bought much of it on the open market from companies wanting to make a buck off of their discoveries and work. China has openly stated it’s their time in the Sun to shine and make no qualms about becoming the dominant force in the world, displacing the West. Despite the abysmal record of Communism with human rights, private property, open disdain for other cultures/economies/religions, and penchant for sacrificing their own people to further their ideology some countries are willing to partner with them. It’s the scorpion and frog parable.

May 12, 2021 10:39 am

Where are the virus cylinders to drop on command? David would be proud.

May 12, 2021 11:14 am

China Space Station belongs not only to China but to the whole world as well. The completion of the station will offer better ‘Chinese solutions’ and make China contribute more to the economic and social development of mankind, said Lin Xiqiang, the agency’s deputy director.

Better Chinese solutions like spreading unstable tons of space junk tumbling around and skipping through the upper atmosphere with no control until it lands somewhere on someones head.

Last edited 1 year ago by Doonman
Tom Abbott
May 12, 2021 12:26 pm

I see some comments are along the line of: The Chinese are just wasting their time with this space station just like the other nations are doing with the International Space Station.

If one is going to operate in space, then one needs a little experience operating in space, and that’s the main function of all these space stations.

China has a goal in building a space station: They plan on building a demonstration Solar Power Satellite in orbit by the year 2030.

NASA needs to expand its horizons. It has some competition now.

And both NASA and the Chicoms have competition from the private space industry.

I see where Musk and Bezos and others are fighting over who gets the NASA Moon-lander contract. I think NASA is still in the lead in the space race, but they better bring their visionary A-Game.

What I wonder about now that the ruthless Chicom government has access to the highground, is how that is going to affect access to space for the free world in the future. No doubt, the Chicom leadership would like to be in absolute control of who goes and who doesn’t go. It’s easier to enslave everyone if you can keep them all in one place.

May 12, 2021 6:14 pm

Ugh. I’d go up in an instant. But the feds are too bureaucratic.

May 13, 2021 5:16 am

China, able to launch rockets to the moon, people into space, build space stations, bribe real “Third World” countries, but is still considered a “Third World” country itself, not needing to do any Climate Change hard work.

What a joke!!!

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