China readies to launch Wentian module for Tiangong space station on Sunday

A Chinese Long March 5B rocket stands on a launchpad in front of a blue sky. The rocket will carry China's experimental Wentian module to the country's Tiangong space station.
A Chinese Long March 5B rocket is rolled out to its launchpad carrying China's experimental Wentian module that will join the country's Tiangong space station in orbit. (Image credit: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

China is expected to launch the second module for its Tiangong space station on Sunday (July 24) from Wenchang spaceport in south China.

The Wentian module will launch on board the huge Long March 5B rocket and should join up with the Chinese space station's Tianhe core module hours later, expanding the country's crewed space research facility.

China generally does not announce launch times ahead of time, nor does it broadcast most of its launches live. Spaceflight Now suggests the rocket will launch around 2:15 a.m. EDT (0615 GMT or 2:15 p.m. local time) based on airspace warning notices. Chinese state media will likely provide mission updates later in the day.

Tiangong is currently hosting three Shenzhou 14 taikonauts who have been on board the Tianhe module for about six weeks, since launching to space on June 5.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

Wentian is both a science module and an area to expand the living space aboard the small space station. It includes experiment cabinets for performing science work, along with more astronaut sleeping quarters to allow crew handovers. Once the module is ready, Tiangong will be able to host temporarily as many as six crew members.

The 174-foot (53-meter tall) Long March 5B is a Chinese heavy-lift rocket variant designed to launch China's space station modules, which each have a mass of about 48,500 pounds (22,000 kg). 

The megarocket's first launch in 2020 sent a prototype new-generation crew spacecraft into low Earth orbit, while the second in 2021 launched Tianhe. On both occasions, the rockets' massive core stages made high-profile, uncontrolled reentries causing worries among space debris trackers, although both deorbited without incident.

Wentian's task post-launch will be to rendezvous with Tianhe, currently orbiting at 236 miles (381 kilometers) above Earth, and mate with Tianhe's forward docking port. Next, it will be moved to a lateral or side port using the module's 33-foot (10-meter) long robotic arm.

China is planning to launch another module later this year to bring more experiments to orbit. The module, called Mengtian, is scheduled to launch in October. Wentian and Mengtian together will create a T-shaped space station that China plans to operate for at least a decade.

The country tends to operate independently in space, and NASA is not allowed to "engage in any bilateral activities with China or Chinese-owned companies," according to the agency. Agency officials did express extreme displeasure with China's uncontrolled fall of the Long March 5B core stage in 2021, and the Biden administration has criticized China's space activities a few times recently.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: