China has prioritised space exploration in recent years, with the aim of becoming a major space power by 2030.
China has launched the main module of its first permanent space station that will host astronauts long-term, the latest success for a program that has realised a number of its growing ambitions in recent years.
The Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony," module blasted into space atop a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan, marking another major advance for the country’s space exploration program.
The launch begins the first of 11 missions necessary to construct and provision the station and send up a three-person crew by the end of next year.
Tianhe will form the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.
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.
Minutes after the launch, the fairing opened to expose the Tianhe atop 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.
Work on the space station program began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.
Both helped China test the program's space rendezvous and docking capabilities.
Smaller than ISS
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.
The core module is the section of the station where astronauts will live for up to six months at a time. Another 10 launches will send up two more modules where crews will conduct experiments, four cargo supply shipments, and four missions with crews.
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 when completed.
The ISS is backed by major countries including the United States, Russia, and Japan. China was barred from participating in the ISS by the United States.
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.
By 2045, it hopes to establish a program operating thousands of space flights a year and carrying tens of thousands of tonnes of cargo and passengers.