China yesterday launched a rocket carrying three astronauts on a mission to complete construction on its new space station, the latest milestone in Beijing’s drive to become a major space power.
The trio blasted off in a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China’s Gobi desert, with the team to spend six months expanding the Tiangong space station, state broadcaster China Central Television said.
Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace,” is expected to become fully operational by the end of this year. China’s heavily promoted space program has already seen the nation land a rover on Mars and send probes to the moon.
The Shenzhou-14 crew is tasked with “completing in-orbit assembly and construction of the space station,” as well as “commissioning of equipment” and conducting scientific experiments, state-run China Global Television Network said on Saturday.
Led by air force pilot Chen Dong (陳冬), the three-person crew’s main challenge is to connect the station’s two lab modules to the main body.
Dong, along with fellow pilots Liu Yang (劉洋) and Cai Xuzhe (蔡旭哲), are to become the second crew to spend six months aboard the Tiangong after the last returned to Earth in April following 183 days on the space station.
Tiangong’s core module entered orbit earlier last year and is expected to operate for at least a decade.
The station shares a similar design with the Soviet Mir station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.
The world’s second-largest economy has poured billions into its military-run space program, with hopes of having a permanently crewed space station this year and eventually sending humans to the moon.
The country has made large strides in catching up with the US and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the country’s plans for its heavily promoted “space dream” have been put into overdrive.
In addition to a space station, Beijing is also planning to build a base on the moon, and the Chinese National Space Administration said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.
China has been excluded from the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011, when the US banned NASA from engaging with the country.
While China does not plan to use its space station for global cooperation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration.
The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although NASA has said it could remain functional until 2030.
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