BEIJING, Oct 31 (Reuters) – China on Monday launched the last of three modules that will make up its space station, set to be the second permanently populated outpost in low orbit after the NASA-led International Space Station.
The Mengtian, or “Dreamer of the Sky” module, was launched aboard China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5B, at 15:37 (0737 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern island province of Hainan.
In April 2021, China began construction of its space station with the launch of the Tiana Module, the main residence for astronauts. In July of this year, it launched Wentian, or “Quest for the Heavens”, a laboratory module where scientific experiments will be carried out.
The 23-ton Mangatian, also a laboratory module, is expected to dock with an axial port at one end of Tiana later Monday.
But the space station will only assume its final T-shape—with Tianha as the core flanked by the two lab modules—when Mangatian is reorientated, while in orbit, to one of Tiana’s radial exits on its side.
The completion of the Chinese space station, designed to have a lifespan of at least 10 years, will be a milestone in China’s low-orbit ambitions, with NASA’s aging ISS likely to cease operations by the end of the decade.
The Chinese-built “heavenly palace,” as the space station is called at home, will also be a symbol of China’s growing power and self-sufficiency in space efforts and challenge the US in the field, after being isolated from China. ISS and other cooperation with NASA.
The space station also marks President Xi Jinping’s 10-year term as leader of China’s ruling Communist Party.
During the life of the station, China plans more than 1,000 scientific experiments – from studying how plants adapt in space to how fluids behave in microgravity.
The international demand for experiments to be conducted at the Chinese station will also increase if the ISS retires in the coming years. More than 3,000 scientific experiments have been performed aboard the ISS since November 2000.
China has approved at least nine proposals from scientists in countries ranging from Switzerland to India in the first batch of experiments in collaboration with the United Nations Space Agency.
In August, the Russian space agency unveiled a physical model of a planned space station built in Russia, which will take its final shape years away.
Two more missions are needed this year before China’s station is ready for operation.
An automated cargo delivery ship – the Tianzhou-5 – is expected to be launched in November, ahead of the arrival of three astronauts in December on the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft for long-term residence on the space station.
China’s space program has come a long way since the late leader Mao Zedong lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into orbit.
China became the third country to put a man into space with its own rocket, in October 2003, following the former Soviet Union and the United States.
Reporting by Ryan Wu; Editing by Shree Navaratnam, Edmund Kalman and Nick McPhee
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