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China launches second of three modules to its permanent space station

China has launched the second of three modules that together with the main body make up the highly ambitious ‘Tiangong’ space station.

The new module, dubbed Wentian, was launched on a Long March 5B rocket on Sunday at 2:22 PM (06:22 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, China.

Wentian, a research lab dedicated to science and biology experiments, is already docked with the main body of the space station, called Tianhe.

It will be followed by a second research lab module, Mengtian, to be launched in October this year.

When Mengtian bonds with the rest of Tiangong, construction of the space station will finally be complete, although Beijing also plans to launch Xuntian, a space telescope that would run alongside the space station, in 2024.

Tiangong (meaning “heavenly palace”) will rival the aging International Space Station (ISS), operated by the space agencies of the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe.

It will consist of three modules, although two other spacecraft – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – carrying crew and cargo respectively, can also dock at the station.

A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China's space station lab module Wentian explodes on July 24, 2022 in Wenchang, Hainan province, China

A Long March-5B Y3 rocket carrying China’s space station lab module Wentian explodes on July 24, 2022 in Wenchang, Hainan province, China

China's second module rocket for its Tiangong space station takes off from the Wenchang spaceport as the crowd watches

China’s second module rocket for its Tiangong space station takes off from the Wenchang spaceport as the crowd watches

Wentian, which will be a base for science and biology experiments, is already docked to the main body of the space station

Wentian, which will be a base for science and biology experiments, is already docked to the main body of the space station

3D rendering of the Chinese space station or Tiangong space station as it will look like when fully built.  Tianhe is the main living quarters for the crew members.  Shenzhou is an existing spacecraft docking with crew at the station.  Tianzhou is an existing cargo spacecraft;

3D rendering of the Chinese space station or Tiangong space station as it will look like when fully built. Tianhe is the main living quarters for the crew members. Shenzhou is an existing spacecraft docking with crew at the station. Tianzhou is an existing cargo spacecraft;

WHAT IS TIANGONG?

China’s space station is called ‘Tiangong‘, which means ‘heavenly palace’.

Tiangong consists of several modules that are launched one by one.

In April 2021, the core module, called ‘Tianhe‘ was launched. The first crew arrived in Tianhe two months later.

In July 2022, Wentiana smaller module where research experiments will take place, linked to Tianhe.

In October 2022, a second research lab module, Mengtian, will also attach to Tianhe. If so, the Tiangong space station is complete.

Two more spacecraft that can dock at the station – Shenzhou and Tianzhou – transport crew and cargo respectively, and are not considered part of the station itself.

China also plans to launch Xuntiana space telescope that would run in tandem with the space station in 2024.

The launch of Wentian was ‘a great success’, reports the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

After a 13-hour flight, Wentian successfully docked at the Tianhe living room of the Tiangong space station at 03:13 Monday (19:13 GMT), according to the China Manned Space Agency.

Three astronauts currently in the core module for a six-month mission — Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang — oversaw Wentian’s arrival and docking procedures.

Photos showed the three astronauts waving at cameras from Wentian and beaming back to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

“This is the first time China has linked such large vehicles together, which is a delicate operation,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Until the next module arrives (Mengtian), the space station will have a “rather unusual L-shape” that will require a lot of force to stay stable, McDowell said.

“These are all technical challenges that the USSR pioneered with the Mir station in the late 1980s, but it is new to China,” he told AFP.

“But it will result in a much more capable station with the space and power to conduct more scientific experiments.”

At nearly 18 meters (60 feet) long and weighing 23 tons (48,500 pounds), Wentian is heavier than any other single-module spacecraft currently in space, according to the state-owned Global Times.

The Wenchang Space Launch Center is a rocket launch site in Hainan Island, China

The Wenchang Space Launch Center is a rocket launch site in Hainan Island, China

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, an image taken from the screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center shows Chinese astronauts from the left, Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang waving from the Wentian lab module on Monday, July 25, 2022

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, an image taken from the screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center shows Chinese astronauts from the left, Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang waving from the Wentian lab module on Monday, July 25, 2022

Chinese astronaut Chen Dong operates equipment in the Wentian lab module on Monday, July 25, 2022

Chinese astronaut Chen Dong operates equipment in the Wentian lab module on Monday, July 25, 2022

The Tiangong space station, currently under construction, can be seen in this artistic rendering (file photo)

The Tiangong space station, currently under construction, can be seen in this artistic rendering (file photo)

CHINESE SPACE STATION MODULES

Tianhe: Core module. Launched on April 29, 2021

Wentian: Experiment module I. Launch planned for 2022

Mengtian: Experiment module II. Launch planned for 2022

Xuntian: Space telescope module. Planned launch in 2024 to orbit with the Chinese space station

It provides astronauts with a pressurized environment to perform tests without gravity, as well as a robotic arm for remote experiments.

The Tianhe module of China’s new space station – the first module launched in April last year – is the main living quarters for crew members aboard Tiangong.

When completed, the Tiangong space station will weigh about 66 tons, much smaller than the ISS, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 450 tons. The service life is expected to be at least 10 years.

Currently in orbit, the ISS has taken 10 years and more than 30 missions to assemble, since the launch of the first module in 1998.

The ISS is supported by five participating space agencies — NASA (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada) — but China was originally barred from participating by the US.

Tiangong’s first crew arrived in Tianhe in June 2021 and returned to Earth in September after a 90-day mission.

The second crew of two men and a woman — Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping — arrived in mid-October 2021 and was there much longer — six months.

In early November, Yaping became China’s first female spacewalker after completing a six-hour task outside the station along with Zhigang.

Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong and Liu Yang are the third crew of three to have lived aboard Tiangong.

They arrived in June this year and will likely spend six months on the space station, to be replaced by three more Chinese astronauts.

China has stepped up its space program with an unmanned mission to the moon – which returned the first lunar samples to Earth in more than 45 years – and the launch of an unmanned probe to Mars, as well as building its own space station.

In contrast, the fate of the aging ISS — which has been in orbit for more than two decades — remains uncertain and could be dismantled and destroyed by 2031.

After what will be an impressive 32-year career, NASA plans to sink the ISS into an ocean in one of the most remote places on Earth – otherwise known as a “spacecraft cemetery.”

CHINA SPEED UP TO BECOME SPACE SUPERPOWER WITH MISSIONS FROM MARS AND MOON

Chinese space agency officials are working to become a space superpower along with the US and Russia.

They’ve already sent the first lander to explore the far side of the moon and share photos of the part of our closest neighbor we rarely see as part of the Chang’e-4 mission.

In November 2020, they sent the Chang’e-5 spacecraft to the moon to collect and return the first samples of lunar soil in 45 years.

This was done in collaboration with the European Space Agency, which provided tracking information for the Chinese spacecraft.

Chang’e-6 will be the first mission to explore the moon’s south pole and is expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.

Chang’e-7 will study the land surface, composition and space environment in a general mission, according to the Chinese Space Authority, while Chang’e-8 will focus on technical surface analysis.

China is also reportedly working on building a lunar base using 3D printing technology and sending a future manned mission to the surface.

Mission number eight will likely lay the groundwork for this as it aims to verify the technology destined for the project.

The CNSA is also building a space station in orbit where Chinese astronauts will conduct science experiments, similar to the crew of the International Space Station.

The agency also launched a mission to Mars in the summer of 2020 and landed a rover on the Red Planet in May 2021.

China is also said to be working on a project to build a solar power generator in space, which would beam energy back to Earth and become the largest man-made object in orbit.

They also have a number of ambitious space science projects, including satellites to hunt for signs of gravitational waves and Earth observation spacecraft to track climate change.

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