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China launched the first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station on Thursday, a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.

Billions of dollars have been poured into space exploration as China seeks to reflect its rising global stature and growing technological might, following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia and Europe.

The Tianhe core module, which houses life support equipment and a living space for astronauts, was launched from Wenchang in China’s tropical Hainan province on a Long-March 5B rocket on Thursday, state television showed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called the space station a key step in “building a great nation of science and technology” in a congratulatory message Thursday.

People watch a Long March 5B rocket, which carries China's Tianhe space station core module, lifting off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in southern China's Hainan province on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
People watch a Long March 5B rocket, which carries China’s Tianhe space station core module, lifting off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, in southern China’s Hainan province on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

The Tiangong space station, whose name means “Heavenly Palace,” is expected to be operational by 2022 after around 11 missions to deliver more modules and assemble them in orbit.

Live footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed space program employees cheering as the rocket powered its way through the atmosphere billowing flames from the launch site.

Crowds wearing sunhats and wielding smartphone cameras gathered under the coconut trees of a nearby beach to watch the launch as a band played in photos published by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

“A palace in the sky will no longer be just a romantic fantasy of the ancients,” the CCTV anchor said.

Living the high life

The completed station will be similar to the Soviet “Mir” station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.

The Chinese space station is expected to remain in low orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometers above Earth for a lifespan of around 15 years.

The completed station, weighing little more than 90 tons, will be around a quarter the size of the International Space Station.

The station will have two other modules for scientific study and will be equipped with solar panels as well as experimental equipment including an ultracold atomic experiment apparatus, according to the Chinese Society of Astronautics.

The core module will give three astronauts 50 cubic meters of living space, equipped with advanced telecommunications equipment that will allow astronauts to browse websites “no differently from normal people using the internet and phones on Earth,” Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station, told CCTV.

China launched the Tiangong-1 lab, its first prototype module intended to lay the groundwork for the permanently crewed station, in September 2011.

The lab disintegrated on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2018, two years after it ceased functioning.

A second lab, the Tiangong-2, was launched into orbit in 2016.

Space ambitions

The International Space Station — a collaboration between the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan — is due to be retired after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.

With the retirement of the ISS, which received its first crew in 2000, China’s Tiangong could become the only space station in Earth’s orbit.

Beijing does not have specific plans to use its space station for international cooperation like the ISS, but Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration, although the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.

The European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China to receive training in order to be ready to work inside the Chinese space station once it is launched.

Beijing has poured billions into its military-run space program, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon. | AFP-JIJI
Beijing has poured billions into its military-run space program, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon. | AFP-JIJI

China also said in March it was planning to build a separate lunar space station with Russia.

The facility, planned for either the surface or the orbit of the Moon, would house experimental research facilities and would be Beijing’s biggest international space cooperation project to date.

The country has come a long way since its first satellite in 1970.

It put the first Chinese “taikonaut” in space in 2003 and landed the Chang’e-4 robot on the far side of the Moon in 2019 — a historic first.

The Chinese space program sent a probe into Mars’ orbit earlier this year.

The wheeled probe is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars in mid-May.


A look at the past and future of China’s space program

Soon after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced: “We too will make satellites.”

It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China launched its first satellite on a Long March rocket.

Human spaceflight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming the first Chinese “taikonaut” in 2003.

As the launch approached, concerns over the viability of the mission caused Beijing to cancel a live television broadcast at the last minute.

But it went smoothly, with Yang orbiting the Earth 14 times during a 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5.

China has launched five crewed missions since.

Space station and ‘Jade Rabbit’

Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China is striving to build a space station circling the planet.

The Tiangong-1 lab was launched in September 2011.

In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video class from inside the space module to children across the world’s most populous country.

The craft was also used for medical experiments and, most importantly, tests intended to prepare for the construction of a space station.

That was followed by the “Jade Rabbit” lunar rover in 2013, which first appeared a dud when it turned dormant and stopped sending signals back to Earth.

It made a dramatic recovery, however, ultimately surveying the Moon’s surface for 31 months — well beyond its expected lifespan.

In 2016, China launched its second orbital lab, the Tiangong-2. Taikonauts who have visited the station have run experiments on growing rice and other plants.

‘Space dream’

Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream,” as he calls it, have been put into overdrive.

China is looking to finally catch up with the U.S. and Russia after years of belatedly matching their milestones.

In addition to a space station, China is also planning to build a base on the Moon, and the country’s National Space Administration has said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.

But lunar work was dealt a setback in 2017 when the Long March-5 Y2, a powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit.

That forced the postponement of the launch of Chang’e-5, which was originally scheduled to collect Moon samples in the second half of 2017.

Another robot, the Chang’e-4, landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 — a historic first.

This was followed by one which landed on the near side of the Moon late last year and raised a Chinese flag on the Moon’s surface.

The unmanned Chinese spacecraft returned to earth in December with rocks and soil from the Moon — the first lunar samples collected in four decades.

And the first images of Mars were sent back by the five-ton Tianwen-1 in February, days before it entered the Red Planet’s orbit.

It includes a Mars orbiter, a lander and a rover that will study the planet’s soil.

China hopes to ultimately land the rover in May in Utopia, a massive impact basin on Mars.

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