BEIJING – China on Thursday launched the main module of its first permanent space station that will accommodate long-term astronauts, the latest success in a program that has achieved a number of its growing ambitions in recent years.
The Tianhe Module, or “Heavenly Harmony,” exploded in space on top of a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center in the southern island province of Hainan, marking another major breakthrough for space exploration from the country.
Launch begins the first of 11 missions needed to complete, provision, and equip the station by the end of next year.
The Chinese space program also recently brought back the first new lunar samples in more than 40 years and plans to land a probe and rover on the surface of Mars later next month.
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Within minutes of launch, the fairing opened to expose the Tianhe atop the rocket’s center stage, with the figures of “China Manned Space” on its exterior. Soon after, it separated from the rocket, which will orbit for about a week before falling to Earth, and a few minutes later it opened its solar panels to provide a stable source of energy.
The space program is a source of enormous national pride, and Premier Li Keqiang and other senior civilian and military leaders watched the launch live from the Beijing control center. A congratulatory message from head of state and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping was also read to staff at the Wenchang launch center.
The launch promotes the “three-step” strategy of building China’s manned space program and marks “an important first-rate project for building a powerful country in science, technology and technology. aerospace, ”Xi said.
The base module is the section of the station where astronauts will live for up to six months at a time. Ten more launches will send two more modules where crews will conduct experiments, four cargo supply shipments and four missions with crews.
At least 12 astronauts are training to fly and live at the station, including veterans of previous flights, newcomers and women, the first manned mission, Shenzhou-12, is expected to launch by June.
When completed in late 2022, China’s T-shaped Space Station is expected to weigh around 66 tonnes, which is considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and will weigh around 450 tonnes once. finished.
Tianhe will have a docking port and will also be able to connect to a powerful Chinese space satellite. Theoretically, it could be extended to up to six modules. The station is designed to operate for at least 10 years.
Tianhe is roughly the size of the 1970s American Skylab space station and the former Soviet / Russian Mir, which operated for over 14 years after its launch in 1986.
The base module will provide living space for up to six astronauts during crew changes, while its other two modules, Wentian, or “Quest for the Heavens” and Mengtian, or “Dreaming of the Heavens”, will allow to carry out scientific activities. experiments, including in medicine and the properties of the space environment.
China began work on a space station project in 1992, as its space ambitions were taking shape. The need to go it alone became more urgent after being barred from the International Space Station in large part due to US objections to the secretive nature of the Chinese program and the close military ties.
After years of successful rocket and commercial satellite launches, China put its first astronaut into space in October 2003, becoming the third country to do so independently after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
Along with more manned missions, China has launched a pair of single-module experimental space stations – Tiangong-1, which stands for “Heavenly Palace-1,” and its successor, Tiangong-2. The former burned after losing contact and decomposing its orbit, while the latter was successfully taken out of orbit in 2018.
The crew of the Tiangong-2 remained on board for 33 days.
While NASA must obtain permission from a reluctant Congress to contact the Chinese space program, other countries have been much less reluctant. European nations and the United Nations are expected to cooperate on experiments to be carried out on the completed Chinese station.
The launch comes as China also moves forward with unmanned missions, particularly in lunar exploration, and it has landed a rover on the unexplored far side of the moon. In December, its Chang’e 5 probe returned moon rocks to Earth for the first time since US missions in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, a Chinese probe carrying a rover is expected to land on Mars around the middle of next month, making China the second country to succeed after the United States.
The Tianwen-1 space probe has been orbiting the Red Planet since February while collecting data. His Zhurong rover will search for evidence of life.
Another Chinese program aims to collect earth from an asteroid, a key focus of the Japanese space program.
China is planning another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and has said it wants to land people on the moon and possibly build a science base there. No timetable has been proposed for such projects. A highly secret space plane is also said to be in development.
China proceeded in a more measured and cautious manner than the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the space race.
A recent setback came when a Long March 5 rocket failed in 2017 during the development of the Long March 5B variant used to put Tianhe into orbit, but this only caused a brief delay.