China on Thursday sent to space a key module for its permanent space station, which it plans to complete by 2022 as part of its ambitious space programme.
The module, sent to orbit by a rocket, can provide electricity, and accommodate three astronauts for up to six months.
The Tianhe module was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan on a Long March-5B rocket on Thursday as a big crowd cheered and waved China’s flag from a distance.
“Tianhe will act as the management and control hub of the space station Tiangong, meaning Heavenly Palace, with a node that could dock with up to three spacecraft at a time for short stays, or two for long,” Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told news agency Xinhua.
Tianhe has a total length of 16.6m, a maximum diametre of 4.2m and a take-off mass of 22.5 tonnes. It is the largest spacecraft developed by China.
Once completed, the Tiangong is set to be a rival to the International Space Station from which China is excluded.
The ISS comprises Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, the US, and 11 member states of the European Space Agency – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
According to the mission schedule, China is expected to complete the construction of the space station in orbit in 2022.
The station will operate in low-earth orbit at an altitude from 340km to 450km with a designed 10-year lifespan.
“The station will have the ability to carry out long-term scientific and technological experiments and explore space resources in low-Earth orbit,” the Xinhua report said.
So far, China has sent two trial space stations into orbit, the Tiangong 1 and 2, allowing short stays by astronauts.
In November 2019, China had successfully mounted an experiment simulating the process of a probe hovering, avoiding obstacles and descending to land on Mars. In January 2019, China’s Chang’e-4 probe landed on the far side of the Moon, making it the first spacecraft to touch down on the side of the Moon that is never visible from Earth.
China’s space programme has already launched six manned space missions until now, the first in 2003, only the third country to do so after the former Soviet Union and the US.
In May 2019, Beijing announced it would welcome all member states of the UN to cooperate in and jointly utilise its future space station.