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People watch a Long March 5B rocket, carrying the core module of China’s Tianhe space station, as it takes off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province – AFP

China launched the basic module of its first permanent space station on Thursday as the country continues its ambitious space program.

The Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony” module, exploded in space aboard the Long March-5B Y2 rocket from Hainan, an island in southern China, according to state media.

The module will become the management and control center of China’s Tiangong space station, which could be operational by the end of next year, state media said.

China expects astronauts to live in the central module of the station for up to six months at a time; at least 12 astronauts are currently training for such missions.

China has invested heavily in its space program, a source of national pride and presented as a symbol of the country’s growing technological expertise and strength. Beijing aims to become a major space power by 2030.

Last News China launches first permanent space station module as Beijing aims to become a major space power by 2030

Visitors stand near a giant screen displaying images of the Tianhe space station during an exhibition on the development of Chinese space exploration on the country’s space day at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing – TINGSHU WANG / REUTERS

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other civilian and military leaders on Thursday watched the launch live from a control center in the capital of Beijing.

The launch of Tianhe is the first of 11 missions planned to build and supply the Tiangong station with materials, spare parts and equipment.

One feature will be a node that can accommodate up to three spaceships for shorter stays or two for longer stays. It will also have a life support system, recycling urine and carbon dioxide, to ease the supply load needed to keep a crew on board for longer periods of time, state media said.

China has been preparing for its own space station for decades after being banned from the International Space Station, the only space station in orbit, largely due to US espionage concerns.

In March, China and Russia announced plans to jointly build a lunar space station.

Last News China launches first permanent space station module as Beijing aims to become a major space power by 2030

A woman waves the Chinese national flag as people gather to witness the launch of the Long March 5B rocket carrying China’s Tianhe space station – MATJAZ TANCIC / Shutterstock

China first sent an astronaut into space with its own rocket in 2003, becoming the third country to do so after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Since then, China has focused on achieving new milestones, matching US and Russian space achievements.

A Chinese probe is expected to land on Mars this month, which would make China the second country to do so after the United States.

The Tianwen-1 space probe was launched in July 2020 and began orbiting Mars in February. Its Zhurong rover could soon land on Mars; once there, he will search for evidence of life on the red planet.

Last year, China successfully landed a rover on the other side of the moon. That probe, the Chang’e 5, returned to Earth in December 2020, along with moon rocks and soil – the first lunar samples to be recovered from U.S. missions four decades ago.

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