China successfully launched the core module of its new space station into orbit on Wednesday, achieving a major milestone in its human spaceflight program.
Weighing in at nearly 50,000 pounds, the “Tianhe” module blasted off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, atop a Long March 5B heavy lift rocket, at 11:23 PM Eastern time, reports SpaceNews. Tianhe, which means “harmony of the heavens,” is about 54-feet-long and contains crew living quarters that can support three astronauts.
Much like the modules of the International Space Station (ISS), currently the only crewed outpost in orbit, Tianhe was launched without humans onboard. But China plans to send astronauts Nie Haisheng, Deng Qingming, and Ye Guangfu to the module this June using its Shenzhou spacecraft, which has already ferried seven crews to space since 2003.
Tianhe is the first module, and core block, of what will eventually become the 66-ton Tiangong (“celestial palace”) station, which will include at least two other modules: the scientific laboratories Wentian and Mengtian. China had previously launched two test modules, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, to develop technologies for a permanent space station, but both of these spacecraft have since been deorbited.
The new station is scheduled to be completed by 2022; several crewed and robotic launches are slated for the next two years to construct the orbital laboratory.
Chinese space officials have expressed interest in ISS participation in the past, but the nation is excluded from the station due to a controversial ban, enacted in 2011 by the United States, that prevents NASA from engaging in bilateral agreements and coordination with China in many space areas.
Once operational, Tiangong is expected to host crews for a period of ten years. It may even outlive the much larger ISS, which has been continuously occupied by humans for 20 years and is expected to enter its twilight years by the end of this decade.
The deployment of Tianhe in orbit is the latest triumph for China’s space program, which has celebrated a string of successes over the past few years. The nation’s Chang’e program landed the first probe on the far side of the Moon in 2019 and recently returned the first samples from the lunar surface since the 1970s in a whirlwind grab-and-go trip.
China also placed its first spacecraft into orbit around Mars in February, and plans to land its first rover, named Zhurong, on the Martian surface next month. If Zhurong touches down successfully, China will become the second nation, after the United States, to carry out a mobile surface mission on the red planet.