China launches core module of its space station

China began building its “Tianjong” space station

China has launched an unmanned module containing living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.

"The Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony", module blasted into space atop a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan, marking another major advance for the country's space exploration program that has chalked up a series of accomplishments in recent months. The launch could come as early as Thursday evening if all goes according to plan.

The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 kilometres (211-280 miles).

Tiangong, scheduled for completion next year, will consist of the core capsule and two experimental modules to host astronauts and their scientific research.

"The station is also expected to contribute to the peaceful development and utilization of space resources through global cooperation, as well as to enrich technologies and experience for China's future explorations into deeper space", Bai said, according to Xinhua. Theoretically, it could be expanded to as many as six modules.

Tianhe is about the size of the American Skylab space station of the 1970s and the former Soviet/Russian Mir, which operated for more than 14 years after launching in 1986.

The Tianhe space station core module separated from the first stage after 490 seconds of flight. The astronauts, two men and one woman, spent 15 days on Tiangong-1. Its successor, Tiangong 2, was launched in 2016.

China had expressed interest in joining the International Space Station project but membership was effectively denied by USA policy towards China's space programs. It was excluded from the ISS largely due to USA objections over the Chinese program's secretive nature and close military ties. While Russia and the United States are now discussing what to do with the International Space Station after 2024, the two countries are contemplating their new settlement bases in space. Since that Shenzhou 5 mission, China has sent other astronauts into orbit, placed crews on the original Tiangong station and conducted a space walk.

It has also strengthened its cooperation with space experts from other countries, including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy.

China has also pushed ahead with crewless missions, particularly in lunar exploration, and has landed a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon. In December, its Chang'e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the USA missions of the 1970s.

China, which completed 39 launch missions previous year, or about one third of the world's total, has a spaceship now orbiting Mars ahead of a planned landing scheduled for mid-May, according to officials. Its Zhurong rover will be looking for evidence of life.

Here's a look at the planned, past and future launch of the Chinese space program.

The backup to China's Chang'e-5 mission, which successfully brought back 1,731 grams of moon samples in 2020, Chang'e-6 would also collect lunar samples automatically for comprehensive analysis and research. No timeline has been proposed for such projects.

The craft was also used for medical experiments and, most importantly, tests meant to prepare for the construction of a space station.

How competitive is China's program?

If successful, China will be the second country after the U.S.to land a rover on Mars, the nearest planet to Earth.

But lunar work was dealt a setback in 2017 when the Long March-5 Y2, a powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit. Engineers moved swiftly to fix the problem.

The International Space Station - a collaboration between the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan - is due to be retired after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028. The country may need more private sector participation to drive innovation, as the United States has done with SpaceX and Blue Origin, and to implement new technologies, such as reusable rockets.

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