Scientific American prepares for the launch of a new place in space – the core module of the CSS (China Space Station), which, after 29 years of planning, should be in orbit at the end of April:
The T-shape, 100-metric-ton CSS will comprise three major modules: the 18-meter-long core module, called Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), and two 14.4-meter-long experiment modules, called Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), which will be permanently attached to either side of the core. As the station’s management and control center, Tianhe can accommodate three astronauts for stays of up to six months. Visiting astronauts and cargo spaceships will hook up to the core module from opposite ends. Both it and Wentian are equipped with robotic arms on the outside, and Mengtian has an airlock for the maintenance and repair of experiments mounted on the exterior of the station. Tianhe has a total of five docking ports, which means an extra module can be added for future expansion. The station is designed to operate for more than 10 years.
The CSS has less than one fourth the mass of the ISS—the largest and most expensive human-made structure in space, which was cooperatively built by 15 nations. “We did not intend to compete with the ISS in terms of scale,” says Gu Yidong, chief scientist of the China Manned Space program. Instead the three-module configuration is “based on China’s needs for scientific experiments” and “what we consider a reasonable size for the sake of cost-effectiveness.”
The CSS will house 14 refrigerator-size scientific experiment racks and a few general purpose racks that provide power, data, cooling and other services to various research projects. There will also be more than 50 docking points for experiments that will be mounted on the outside of the station to study how materials react to space exposure. The science inside and out will include space physiology, life science, fluid physics, materials science, astronomy and Earth observation.
Tricia Larose, a medicine researcher at the University of Oslo, is leading Tumors in Space, a 31-day experiment that will fly on the CSS and test if weightlessness can slow or stop the growth of cancer, among other goals. As one of the nine international projects selected by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the mission will use three-dimensional stem cell organoids, or “mini colons,” grown from cancerous and healthy colon tissues of the same patient to study how DNA mutations are affected by microgravity. “All previous cancer experiments in space have used two-dimensional cell lines,” Larose says. “In comparison, organoids mimic the organ’s structure and function and are the most physiologically relevant biosamples to use.”