China has launched the second of three modules that, together with the main body, make up its highly-ambitious ‘Tiangong’ space station.
The new module, called Wentian, was launched on a Long March 5B rocket at 14:22 (06:22 GMT) on Sunday from Wenchang Space Launch Center on the island of Hainan, China.
Wentian, a research lab dedicated to science and biology experiments, has already docked with the main body of the space station, called Tianhe.
It’s set to be followed by a second research lab module, Mengtian, due to be launched in October this year.
When Mengtian attaches to the rest of Tiangong, the space station’s construction will finally be complete, although Beijing also plans to launch Xuntian, a space telescope that would co-orbit with the space station, in 2024.
Tiangong (meaning ‘heavenly palace’) will rival the ageing International Space Station (ISS), which is operated by the space agencies of the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe.
It will comprise three modules, although another two spacecraft – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – which transport crew and cargo respectively, can also dock at the station.
A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China’s space station lab module Wentian blasts off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on July 24, 2022 in Wenchang, Hainan Province of China
The rocket carrying Chinas second module for its Tiangong space station lifts off from Wenchang spaceport as crowds watch
Wentian, which will be a base for science and biology experiments, has already docked with the main body of the space station
3D rendering of the Chinese Space Station, or Tiangong Space Station, as it’ll look when fully constructed. Tianhe forms the main living quarters for crew members. Shenzhou is an existing spacecraft that docks at the station with crew. Tianzhou is an existing cargo transport spacecraft
The launch of Wentian was ‘a complete success’, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported.
After 13 hours of flight, Wentian successfully docked with the Tianhe living area of the Tiangong space station at 03:13 Monday (19:13 GMT), according to the China Manned Space Agency.
Three astronauts currently living in the core module on a six-month mission – Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang – oversaw Wentian’s arrival and docking procedures.
Photos showed the three astronauts waving to cameras from inside Wentian, beamed back to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.
‘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.
Until the next module arrives (Mengtian), the space station will have a ‘rather unusual L-shape’ which will take a lot of power to keep stable, McDowell said.
‘These are all technical challenges that the USSR pioneered with the Mir station in the late 1980s, but it’s new to China,’ he told AFP.
‘But it will result in a much more capable station with the space and power to carry out more scientific experiments.’
At almost 18 metres (60 feet) long and weighing 23 tons (48,500 pounds), Wentian is heavier than any other single-module spacecraft currently in space, according to the state-owned Global Times.
The Wenchang Space Launch Center is a is a rocket launch site on the island of Hainan, China
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, an image taken off the screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center shows Chinese astronauts from left, Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang wave from inside the Wentian lab module on Monday, July 25, 2022
Chinese astronaut Chen Dong operates equipment inside the Wentian lab module on Monday, July 25, 2022
The Tiangong space station, currently under construction, is seen in this artistic rendering (file photo)
It provides a pressurised environment for astronauts to conduct tests in zero gravity, as well as a robotic arm for external experiments.
The Tianhe module of China’s new space station – which was the first module to be launched, in April last year – forms the main living quarters for crew members aboard Tiangong.
Once completed, Tiangong space station will weigh some 66 tons, far smaller than the ISS, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tons. It is expected to have a life span of at least 10 years.
ISS, currently in orbit, took 10 years and more than 30 missions to assemble, from the launch of the first module back in 1998.
The ISS is backed by five participating space agencies – NASA (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada) – but China was originally barred from participating by the US.
Tiangong’s first crew arrived at Tianhe in June 2021 and returned to Earth in September following a 90-day mission.
The second crew of two men and one woman – Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping – arrived in mid October 2021 and were there for much longer – six months.
In early November, Yaping became China’s first female spacewalker after completing a six-hour task outside the station, along with Zhigang.
Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang make up the third three-person crew to have lived aboard Tiangong.
They arrived in June this year and will likely also spent six months on the space station, to be replaced by another three Chinese astronauts.
China has ramped up its space programme with an unmanned mission to the moon – which returned the first moon samples to Earth in more than 45 years years – and the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars, as well as construction of its own space station.
In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain, and it may be decommissioned and destroyed in 2031.
After what will be a distinguished 32-year career, NASA plans to sink the ISS in an ocean in one of the most remote places on Earth – also known as a ‘spacecraft cemetery’.