China yesterday launched the second of three modules required to complete its new space station, state media reported, the latest step in Beijing’s ambitious space program.
The uncrewed craft, named Wentian, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket at 2:22pm from the Wenchang launch site on the island of Hainan.
Beijing in April last year launched the central module of its space station Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace.”
Almost 18m long and weighing 22 tonnes, the new module has three sleeping areas and a laboratory for scientific experiments.
It will dock with the existing module in space, a challenging operation that experts said would require several high-precision manipulations and use of a robotic arm.
“This is the first time China has docked such large vehicles together, which is a delicate operation,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
He said until the next module arrives, the space station will have a “rather unusual L-shape,” which requires a substantial amount of power to keep stable.
“These are all technical challenges that the USSR pioneered with the Mir station in the late 1980s, but it’s new to China,” he said. “But it will result in a much more capable station, with the space and power to carry out more scientific experiments.”
Wentian will also serve as a backup platform to control the space station in the event of a failure. The third and final module is scheduled to dock in October, and Tiangong — which should have a lifespan of at least 10 years — is expected to become fully operational by the end of the year.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the country’s plans for its heavily promoted “space dream” have been put into overdrive.
China has made large strides in catching up with the US and Russia, where astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.
The Chinese space station will be completed in 18 months, the fastest in history for a modular space station, space technology analyst Chen Lan (陳藍) said, adding that Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took 10 and 12 years respectively.
China’s space program has already landed a rover on Mars and sent probes to the moon.
In addition to a space station, Beijing is planning to build a base on the moon and send humans there by 2030.
China has been excluded from the International Space Station 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.
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