This Thursday, China launched the main module of its new, permanent space station.
Christened Tianhe, the module was sent into orbit on a Long March 5B launching from the Wenchang Launch Center in the province of Hainan. It represents the first and central part of their upcoming permanent space station, which will be completed over a series of 11 missions.
Many high-ranking officials and military leaders watched the launch live from the control center in Beijing. Xi Jinping, the President of the Communist Party sent a message of congratulations for the ground crew in celebration of the successful launch.
The launcher that brought Tianhe to orbit opened its fairings a few minutes after the launch, revealing the module with the characters for “China Manned Space” emblazoned on its exterior. It separated from the rocket soon after this and extended its solar arrays. The rocket will orbit around Earth for about a week before naturally falling back down to be recovered.
Needless to say, this is an important step for China and its manned space program. The module holds living quarters that will house astronauts for up to six months at a time. In the future, two laboratory modules will also be sent up, followed by four cargo shipments and four rockets laden with crew. Roughly 12 astronauts are currently in training in preparation for missions aboard the Chinese Space Station.
If everything goes according to plan, the station should become operational by late 2022 and be considerably smaller than the International Space Station (weighing 66 and 450 tons, respectively). That being said, the Chinese station is comparable to the former Soviet Mir station in size, is intended to operate for at least 10 years, and was designed to allow upgrades of up to six additional modules.
China first started work on the new station in 1992, and work picked up on the project after the U.S. objected to China being allowed onto the International Space Station due to concerns regarding military interest and potential technological espionage by China.
So far, the Asian country seems to be doing OK, however. They became the third country to independently make a soft landing on the Moon in October 2003, launched a pair of experimental single-module space stations, and have collaborated closely with other countries in the field of space exploration. It also launched an unmanned rover to the dark side of the moon and is currently the latest country to bring back samples of moon rocks with its Chang’e 5 probe.