China launched this Sunday (24) the second of three modules of its space station, Tiangong (Celestial Palace, in Portuguese).
The module, named Wentian, weighing about 20 tons and without astronauts on board, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket at 2:22 pm (3:22 am GMT) from the Wenchang launch center in southern China.
Hundreds of people flocked to the surrounding beaches to photograph the rocket soaring into the sky amid a cloud of white smoke.
After eight minutes of flight, “Wentian successfully separated from the rocket to place itself in the planned orbit,” said the Chinese space agency, which described the launch as a “complete success”.
Almost 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, the Wentian module will be docked with Tianhe, the station’s first module, which has been in orbit since April 2021.
The operation is a challenge for the crew, as it requires several high-precision maneuvers, some of them using a robotic arm.
“This is the first time that China has had to dock such large vehicles. It’s a delicate operation,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States.
In addition to three sleeping spaces, bathrooms and kitchen, the new module also has sectors for scientific experiments. Wentian will also serve as a platform to control the space station in case of technical problems.
The Tiangong space station is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year. The station’s last module, Mengtian, should be launched during the month of October.
The station will then have its final “T” shape. It will be similar in size to the former Soviet-Russian space station Mir. Their life expectancy would be at least ten years.
“The project will be completed in just a year and a half, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station,” said Chen Lan, an analyst at the Go Taikonaut portal who specializes in the Chinese space program. “By comparison, the construction of Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took 10 and 12 years, respectively,” he added.
When Tiangong is completed, China will be able to carry out an in-orbit crew swap for the first time. This exchange should take place in December, when the astronauts of the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently on the space station, make room for those of the Shenzhou-15.
China was forced to build its own station after the United States refused to allow it to participate in the ISS. The Asian country has been investing billions of dollars in its space program for several decades.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. In 2019, the country placed a device on the far side of the Moon, an unprecedented event worldwide. In 2020, China collected samples from Earth’s satellite, and the following year sent a small robot to Mars. China also plans to send humans to the Moon around 2030.