China Planning Over 40 Space Launches This Year, Nearly On Par With Expected U.S. Missions

China said it is planning more than 40 space launches in 2022 as it continues building its Tiangong space station.

The station's Tianhe core module currently is hosting a three-person crew. Among the launches planned this year are Mengtian and Wentian, the other two modules, which will weigh about 66 tons, or about a quarter of the International Space Station's (ISS) weight.

According to Xinhua News Agency, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said two Shenzhou crewed missions and two Tianzhou cargo spacecrafts are also among the planned launches.

The launch schedule is similar to the U.S., which had to slow its launches in 2021 due to supplies such as liquid oxygen and computer chips having to be redirected to hospitals to help COVID-19 patients.

Space.com reported that Tiangong, which means "Heavenly Place," is currently being built in low Earth orbit. The Tianhe module was launched in May of 2021 and the Chinese Manned Space Agency plans to finish building the station by the end of the year.

The space news site added that Tianhe will serve as the astronauts' living quarters, while Mengtian and Wentian will be dedicated to experiments.

The three-member Tianhe crew's six-month Shenzhou-13 mission is the longest period China has sent people to space since the country's first space mission in 2003.

China, Tianzhou, spacecraft
China announced it is planning for more than 40 space launches in 2022. Above, a Long March 7Y4 rocket carrying a Tianzhou-3 cargo ship launches from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China's southern Hainan province on a mission to deliver supplies to China's Tiangong space station on September 20, 2021. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

The launch schedule shows how China's traditionally cautious program is increasing the cadence of its missions as it seeks to take a leading role in space exploration.

China's military-run space program was barred from the ISS, mainly due to U.S. objections.

Working largely on its own, China has pushed ahead with its Tiangong space station program, building and then abandoning two experimental stations before embarking on the latest iteration.

The crew has conducted a pair of spacewalks—including the first by a Chinese female astronaut—and carried out tests alongside the station's robotic service arm, which on Thursday successfully undocked then redocked the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft for the first time.

The three are the second crew on the permanent station, which upon completion will weigh about 66 tons, about a quarter the size of the ISS, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tons.

China has also chalked up success with uncrewed missions, and its lunar exploration program generated media buzz last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back pictures of what was described by some as a "mystery hut" but was most likely only a rock of some sort.

The rover is the first to be placed on the little-explored far side of the moon. China's Chang'e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s in December of 2000 and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.

The program has also drawn controversy. In October, China's Foreign Ministry brushed off a report that China had tested a hypersonic missile two months earlier, saying it had merely tested whether a new spacecraft could be reused.

China is also reportedly developing a highly secretive space plane.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.