China launches first module of its habitable space station
China's new low-earth orbit space station takes shape with the launch of its central module.
From the Wenchang launch base (Hainan Island) in southern China and for the second flight in its history, a Long March 5B heavy launcher took off Thursday with the first of three modules of the future Chinese habitable space station on board. Tiangong in low earth orbit (at an altitude of nearly 400 km; between 340 and 450 km).
Measuring 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, this central module called Tianhe has a mass of just over 22 tonnes. It will be truly central to future space station operations with astronauts living there and to control navigation. It will also be used to host scientific experiments.
The Tianhe module will subsequently be attached to space laboratories with a total mass of nearly 70 tonnes.
The orbital complex is expected to be fully operational in 2022 and for a lifespan of 15 years. Placed in the same orbit in 2024, an Xuntian space telescope - equipped with a primary mirror 2 m in diameter - should in particular be able to dock there.
Construction of the Chinese space station will continue with manned missions and robotic cargo flights. For the first module, a manned space mission - Shenzhou 12 - is scheduled for next June with three taikonauts on board.
The Tiangong space station (Tiangong 3) will be three times smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) from which China is excluded due to the presence of the United States. China reiterates its openness to international cooperation within the framework of its project.