China yesterday launched the first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station, a breakthrough in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.
Billions of dollars have been poured into space exploration, as China seeks to reflect its rising global stature and growing technological might, following in the footsteps of the US, Russia and Europe.
The Tianhe core module, which houses life support equipment and a living space for astronauts, was yesterday launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on a Long March 5B rocket, China Central Television (CCTV) showed.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) called the space station a key step in “building a great nation of science and technology.”
The Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” space station is expected to be operational by next year after about 11 missions to deliver more modules and assemble them in orbit.
Live footage from CCTV showed space program employees cheering as the rocket powered its way through the atmosphere, billowing flames from the launch site.
Crowds wearing sunhats and wielding smartphone cameras gathered under the coconut trees of a nearby beach to watch the launch, as a band played in photographs published by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
“A palace in the sky will no longer be just a romantic fantasy of the ancients,” the CCTV anchor said.
The completed station is to be similar to the Soviet “Mir” station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.
The Chinese space station is expected to remain in low orbit at 400km to 450km above Earth for a lifespan of about 15 years.
The completed station, weighing little more than 82 tonnes, would be about one-quarter the size of the International Space Station.
The station is to have two other modules for scientific study and be equipped with solar panels, as well as experimental equipment — including an ultra-cold atomic experiment apparatus, the Chinese Society of Astronautics said.
The core module would give three astronauts 50m3 of living space, equipped with advanced telecommunications equipment that would allow astronauts to even browse Web sites.
China launched the Tiangong-1 lab, its first prototype module intended to lay the groundwork for a permanently crewed station, in September 2011.
A second lab, Tiangong-2, was launched into orbit in 2016.
The country has come a long way since its first satellite in 1970.
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