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Space News' China launches Tianhe space station core module into orbit

China successfully launched a 22-metric-ton module April 28, beginning an intense period of missions for constructing the nation’s own space station.

A Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket lifted off from the coastal Wenchang spaceport at 11:23 p.m. Eastern. The Tianhe space station core module separated from the first stage after 490 seconds of flight.

Solar array deployment occurred just over an hour after launch. Li Shangfu, chief commander of the China Manned Spaceflight Program, announced launch success shortly after.

Tianhe, or “harmony of the heavens,” is now expected to raise its orbit to around 370 kilometers above the Earth. The uncrewed Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is slated to rendezvous and dock with Tianhe in mid-late May, ahead of the visit of three astronauts aboard Shenzhou-12 in June.

The 16.6-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe will provide regenerative life support and the main living quarters for astronauts as well as propulsion to maintain orbital altitude.

16 meters sounds long to me. I was wondering how many rockets currently have fairings that can hold 16 meter long x 4 m diameter cylinders.

Question: What are the longest current rocket payload fairings, capable of carrying long space station sections? (circa 16 meters) I'm seeing 18 m (60 ft) long and 4.6 m (15 ft) wide for the Shuttle, but could the same thing be launched by something besides a "Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket" today?

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  • $\begingroup$ does it have to fit in the dynamic envelope of the fairing? $\endgroup$ Apr 30 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ @BrendanLuke15 Hmm, what is the dynamic envelope of a fairing? I'd just assumed that there's a fairing completely around it, but maybe that's not necessary? After all this space plane has a fairing but this one doesn't $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 30 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ lots of vibration on launch so there needs to be some wiggle room between s/c and fairing wall to they don't hit. Although upon further reading the dynamic envelope is specific to each s/c & launcher combination (complicated vibration analysis for each mission) so my question is rather moot :) $\endgroup$ Apr 30 at 18:17
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Tory Bruno (President of ULA) has shared a number of fairing-related graphics on Twitter demonstrating various sizes.

This shows that the Delta IV Heavy already beats out Long March 5B with a 19.8m by 5.1m fairing:

enter image description here

This graphic however is even more informative showing the fairing sizes of a number of competitors:

enter image description here

So while the Delta IV Heavy has the largest fairing of any currently flying rocket, the Vulcan rocket will have an even larger one, at a whopping 21.3m by 5.4m.

This next graphic, courtesy of Ken Kirtland shows that actually most of the new generation of rockets will have fairings easily large enough:

enter image description here

This paper from Boeing however mentions a 10m by 31m fairing for SLS Block 2, which would reign supreme both in size and volume, at 1800m$^3$, nearly twice the volume of the already massive 1100m$^3$ inteded with SpaceX's Starship.

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  • $\begingroup$ So all they needed to carry the whales in Star Trek IV was a payload fairing? $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    May 2 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ Note, this graphic seems to show the currently-in-development extended payload fairing for Falcon Heavy, not the normal one. $\endgroup$ May 2 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ +1, great answer pulling all this together. As an extra I think the fairing for the forthcoming three stage Proton launch of the Nauka module will use the same type of fairing used for Zarya and Zvesda, not seen for about twenty years and very different from the commercial Proton Breeze type. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    May 3 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Puffin after it was pointed out that the newly orbited Tianhe module looks a lot like Zarya I found i.stack.imgur.com/B4lwW.gif (from here) I think an additional answer based on the Proton family being "current" even though there are changes, then highlighting that information about the fairings would be quite helpful and informative. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 10 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh great find! It would be nice to find a higher resolution one. I may get time for an answer, we'll see! Short of that, there may be photos of the Nauka integration at NasaSpaceflight.com when we get closer to launch. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    May 10 at 9:09

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