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China launches space station core module into orbit

China has successfully launched the core module of its long-planned Chinese space station, which could survive the life of the ISS.

The 18-meter, 22-ton Tianhe module (“Harmony of the Heavens”) was launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft launch site on Hainan, using a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket.

After just over eight minutes of flight, the Tianhe space station’s core module separated from the first stage. After about an hour of flying, the solar panel was deployed.

The successful launch was confirmed by Li Shangfu, Chief Commander of the China Manned Spaceflight Program. Tianhe will slowly increase its orbit to 370 km above the Earth’s surface, where it will encounter the unmanned Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft in the second half of May.

Tianhe will provide its crews with regenerative life support and living quarters, as well as propulsion to maintain altitude and stay in stable orbit.

Tianhe has a multi-docking hub to facilitate construction so crews can embark on activities outside the space station.

The launch of the core module will be followed by two additional modules for experiment (Wentian and Mengtian) – forming a T-shaped station – as well as cargo supplies and at least four manned missions by the end of 2022. The first manned mission will include three astronauts and is scheduled for June. Tianhe will organize hundreds of experiments in the unique environment.

They include experiments in space medicine, microgravity combustion, microgravity fluid physics, and at least nine international experiments selected through a program jointly conducted by the United Nations Space Affairs Bureau and the China Manned Space Agency.

The Chinese Space Station, which is fully developed and operated by Chinese experts, will be the only operational space station besides the ISS.It is expected to be in orbit for at least a decade and can have a lifespan of 15 years;

this allows it to last longer than the ISS as the station enters its final years of service (there are no concrete plans for the ISS after its 30th anniversary in 2028).

China had expressed interest in joining the ISS, but was blocked by the US due to a law (the Wolf Amendment) prohibiting cooperation between NASA and its Chinese counterpart. The country has made great strides in its space program since the space station was approved in 1992.

In 2019, it became the first national space program to perform a soft landing on the far side of the moon, and recently a Chinese spacecraft reached Mars.

China is also preparing for the 2024 launch of the Xuntian optical module, an orbiting space telescope that is similar in many specifications to the Hubble space telescope, but with a field of view hundreds of times greater. Xuntian will dock at the Chinese space station for repairs and maintenance if necessary.