The size of the neighborhood in low Earth orbit has now officially doubled. On October 31, China launched the final piece of its new Tiangong space station, completing its construction.
The 18-meter lab module, named Mengtian (meaning “dreaming of the heavens”), enables a range of scientific experiments and now allows the station to accommodate up to six people at a time. It currently hosts commander Chen Dong and two other astronauts.
It’s a significant accomplishment for China’s rapidly growing space program, which plans to build a base on the moon, deploy a lunar rover, and send new landers and orbiters to Mars. It’s also the first long-term neighbor the International Space Station has had since Russia’s Mir station was deorbited in 2001. (China flew two Tiangong experimental prototypes between 2011 and 2019, but they are no longer orbiting.) “This is important for the Chinese space program. The International Space Station won’t run for much longer. You may well end up with only one orbiting space station—the Chinese one,” says Fabio Tronchetti, a space law professor at Beihang University in Beijing and the University of Mississippi.
The Chinese space program plans to have Tiangong last for 10 to 15 years, with the possibility of extending its lifespan, Tronchetti says. The much larger ISS, operated by the United States, the European Space Agency, Russia, and other partners, could be retired as soon as 2030—that’s the end date the Biden administration gave it after extending its mission last year. (Earlier this year, Russia threatened to pull out by 2024, thanks to the ongoing geopolitical tensions that followed its invasion of Ukraine. But space analysts now expect Russia to continue its support until 2030 as well.)
Representatives from the China National Space Administration, the Chinese space program, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment but did refer to this April press conference (in Chinese) about the space station’s progress.
Throughout humanity’s history of space exploration and crewed spaceflight, those activities have been dominated by the US and its allies—including Europe, Canada, and Japan—and by Russia, whose space program has lately been in decline. China has now accomplished what Russia and the US did a few decades ago, and it did so quickly, on its own, with some improvements over previous designs.
Although preparation for the station began in 2011, including the launch of the first of the two test versions, it took China only one and a half years to build Tiangong. The core module, Tianhe, launched in April 2021, and the first astronauts arrived that June. The next module went up in July 2022, followed by the final one this week.
The T-shaped station, with two lab modules connected to the core, is similar in size to Mir, the groundbreaking space station that operated in the 1980s and ’90s. But although it’s smaller than the ISS, says Jan Osburg, an aerospace engineer at the Rand Corporation, “on the inside they have some creature comfort features that improve habitability and therefore astronaut productivity: less clutter, more wireless rather than cabling, and a microwave in space.”