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China launches first module of Tiangong space station

China launched the main module of a permanent space station, marking another milestone for the country’s extraterrestrial ambitions. The launch is the first of 11 missions needed to build and supply the station.

The central module of China’s first permanent space station, due to be completed by the end of next year, took off from Earth on Thursday.

The launch represents the latest success of the country’s rapidly advancing space program.

Takeoff from the island’s launch base

Chinese state television showed the takeoff from the launch site of the Wenchang spacecraft, on the island of Hainan in the south, aboard a long-range 5B rocket.

The ship carried the Tianhe (Celestial Harmony) module, the first of at least three sections that will form the Tiangong space station (Palace of Heaven).

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang watched the mission control center take off in Beijing, along with other civilian and military leaders.

Minutes later, the rocket structure opened to reveal the Tianhe with Chinese characters from China, manned and with the space stamped on it.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to employees. He said the launch marked the beginning of “an important leadership project for building a powerful country in science and technology and aerospace”.

The rocket must remain in space for about a week before falling back to Earth.

Visitors stand near a giant screen displaying the images of the Tianhe space station

What happens next?

The main module already contains the rooms and life support equipment for “taikonauts” in China.

Another 10 launches will send two more modules – where the crews will experiment – four shipments of cargo supplies and four missions with crews on board.

The other two modules, Wentian (Search for Heaven) and Mengtian (Dreaming of Heaven) ‘will provide space for the crew to conduct scientific experiments.

The next two launches are expected to follow in succession, including the takeoff of the Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft (Heavenly Ship 2) in May. The first manned mission, Shenzhou-12, is due to launch in June.

A crew of three will live there aboard the station – which has a life expectancy of around 10 years – for six months at a time.

At least 12 astronauts are training to fly and live in Tiangong, including veterans from previous space flights. There will also be female taikonauts.

How does Tiangong compare to the ISS?

The three modules of the T-shaped space station weigh about 66 metric tons, which makes Tiangong considerably smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) by about 420 tons. However, it can be expanded to up to six modules.

The station will be roughly the same size as the American Skylab space station of the 1970s and the former Soviet / Russian Mir, which operated from 1986 to 2001.

China has already sent prototypes of space stations, with the launch of a Tiangong-1 space laboratory in 2011 and Tiangong-2 in 2016.

The country started working on the project in 1992, being forced to continue on its own when it was excluded from the ISS because of the United States’ objections. Washington claimed that the Chinese space program was very secretive and was closely linked to the military.

ISS – a collaboration involving the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan – is expected to be retired after 2024. NASA said the station, launched in 1998, could remain functional after 2028.

When the ISS stops operating, Tiangong could become the only space station in Earth’s orbit.

Although Beijing has no specific plans for international cooperation, it said it is open to foreign collaboration. The European Space Agency has already sent astronauts to China for training and work on board the Chinese station.

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