China has launched the first module of its new space station, a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to place a permanent human presence in space.
The Tianhe or “Heavenly Harmony” unmanned core module, containing living quarters for three crew, was launched from Wenchang in China’s Hainan province on a Long-March 5B rocket on Thursday.
The space station is expected to become fully operational in 2022 after about 10 missions to bring up more parts and assemble them in orbit.
Billions of dollars have been poured into space exploration as China seeks to assert its rising global stature and growing technological might, following in the footsteps of the US and Russia.
China’s space program has also recently brought back the first new lunar samples in more than 40 years and expects to land a probe and rover on the surface of Mars later next month.
The space program is a source of huge national pride, and Premier Li Keqiang and other top civilian and military leaders watched the launch live from the control center in Beijing.
Live footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed space programme employees cheering as the rocket powered its way through the atmosphere billowing flames from the launch site.
Minutes after the launch, the fairing opened to expose the Tianhe atop the the core stage of the rocket, with the characters for “China Manned Space” emblazoned on its exterior. Soon after, it separated from the rocket, which will orbit for about a week before falling to Earth.
Once completed, the Chinese space station is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres above Earth for 15 years.
At least 12 astronauts are training to fly to and live in the station, including veterans of previous flights, newcomers and women, with the first crewed mission, Shenzhou-12, expected to be launched by June.
When completed by late 2022, the t-shaped Chinese Space Station is expected to weigh about 66 tons, considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and will weigh about 450 tons.
Tianhe will have a docking port and will also be able to connect with a powerful Chinese space satellite. Theoretically, it could be expanded to as many as six modules.
While China does not plan to use its space station for international cooperation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration without giving details of the scope of that cooperation.
The country has come a long way since its first satellite in 1970.
It put the first Chinese “taikonaut” in space in 2003 and sent a probe in to Mars’ orbit earlier this year.
China launched the Tiangong-1 lab, its first prototype module intended to lay the groundwork for the permanent station, in September 2011.