China has been in the process of developing a modular space station for years, and the core module of such a station is now ready for launch. The station core module, called Tianhe (that means “harmony of the heavens” and would sound hopelessly new-agey if it wasn’t for the fact it’s a space station) looks, at least in general design, a lot like an updated version of the original Soviet Mir space station core module. This isn’t a dig! That was a design that worked very well, for a very long time, after all.
The core module’s readiness was announced by China Manned Space (CMS), which also showed a video of the module being prepped.
The nearly 60-foot-long space station module is a bit longer than the 1986-launched Soviet/Russian Mir core module by about 15 feet or so, but appears to have generally the same design: a spherical front compartment with up to five docking ports, mated to a cylindrical module that then expands, via a conic-section adapter portion, into a larger-diameter cylinder, likely with another docking port at the aft end.
I’m certain the component systems of the Tianhe are dramatically different and far more modern than the old Mir, of course, and we’ve seen China take similar steps with their manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou, which takes the Soviet-era Soyuz design as a starting point and heavily updates it.
The general layout of the overall station will resemble the Mir, which means up to four additional modules will be docked in a cruciform arrangement at one end, with a port for a visiting Shenzhou taikonauts or Tianzhou cargo resupply ships (these were used as sort of training space stations by China previously) and another module and another docking port co-axially at the other end, for a possible total of six modules.
The station can be usable from the time this first module gets into orbit on a Long March 5B rocket, likely soon, and CMS has suggested that the whole station will be completed in 2022, after about 11 launches.
Based on illustrations, it looks like the station will have large solar arrays more similar to the type used on the ISS to provide for the whole station, as opposed to Mir’s method of each module sporting its own arrays, which is part of why it had a much more cluttered, ramshackle look compared to China’s plans.
The Mir-type design—itself adapted from the earlier Salyut design, the first space station ever—proved itself for 15 years of service and is a smart template for China’s first real modular space station.