China on Sunday launched the second of three modules needed to complete its new space station, state media reported, the latest stage in Beijing’s ambitious space program.
The uncrewed craft, named Wentian, was launched by a Long March 5B rocket at 2:22 p.m. (0622 GMT) from the Wenchang Launch Center on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan.
A quarter of an hour later, an official from the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) confirmed the “success” of the launch.
Hundreds of people gathered on nearby beaches to take photos of the launcher rising into the air in a plume of white smoke.
After about eight minutes of flight, “the Wentian Lab module successfully separated from the rocket and entered its intended orbit, making the launch a complete success,” CMSA said.
Beijing launched the central module of its Tiangong space station – which means “heavenly palace” – in April 2021.
Nearly 18 meters (60 feet) long and weighing 22 tons (48,500 pounds), the new module has three sleeping areas and space for science experiments.
It will dock with the existing module in space, a difficult operation that experts say will require several high-precision manipulations and the use of a robotic arm.
“This is the first time China has docked such large vehicles together, which is a tricky operation,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
He said that until the next module arrives, the space station will have a “rather unusual L-shape” that will require a lot of energy to stay stable.
“These are all technical challenges that the USSR launched with the Mir station in the late 1980s, but this is new for China,” he told AFP.
“But it will result in a much more capable station with the space and power to conduct more science 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 expected to dock in October, and Tiangong – which is expected to have a lifespan of at least 10 years – should become fully operational by the end of the year.
– Fast-paced space plan –
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s plans for its heavily promoted “space dream” have come under strain.
China has made great strides to catch up with the United States and Russia, where astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.
“The CSS (Chinese Space Station) will complete its construction (…) in a year and a half, which will be the fastest in history for a modular space station,” said Chen Lan, analyst for the site Go- Taikonauts.com, which specializes in the Chinese space program.
“In comparison, building Mir and the International Space Station took 10 and 12 years, respectively.”
The Chinese space program has already landed a rover on Mars and sent probes to the Moon.
In addition to a space station, Beijing also plans to build a base on the moon and send humans there by 2030.
China has been barred from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country.
While China does not plan to use its space station for ISS-scale global cooperation, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)