“A delicate operation” : China launched the second of three modules of its under-construction space station into space on Sunday, July 24, an important step towards finalizing the installation.
Weighing about twenty tons and with no astronauts on board, the vehicle named “Wentian” was propelled by a Longue-Marche 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center in the tropics at 2:22 p.m. (8:22 a.m. Paris). Hainan Island (South), according to public television CCTV images. Hundreds of enthusiasts gathered on a nearby beach to take pictures of the launcher billowing into the air in a plume of white smoke.
After about eight minutes of flight, “Wentian successfully separates from rocket, lands in planned orbit”Welcomes the space agency responsible for manned flight (CMSA), describes its launch “Total Success”.
An ambitious docking operation
About 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, this laboratory module is due to dock at Tianhe, the station’s first module, which has already been in orbit since April 2021. The docking operation poses a challenge for the crew, as it requires several sequences. , high-precision manipulation, especially with a robotic arm.
“This is the first time China has had to dock such large vehicles together,” And “It’s a delicate operation.”Astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States explained to Agence France-Presse (AFP). A manipulation that will later be repeated in 2022 with the arrival of a new laboratory module.
“ [A terme], This will allow the station to be more capable with the necessary space and power to carry out more scientific experiments.”Mr. McDowell pointed out.
Equipped with three sleeping quarters, a toilet and a kitchen, Wentian will serve as a backup platform to control the station in the event of a failure. The module also has space for scientific experiments and has an airlock that will become the preferred route for spacewalks.
Named in Chinese as “Tiangong” (“heavenly palace”) but also known by its acronym CSS (for “Chinese Space Station”, in English), the Chinese space station should be fully operational by the end of the year.
After Wentian this weekend, the three astronauts of the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently aboard the space station, will welcome the third and final module there, Mengtian, in October. The station will then take on its final T-shaped shape. It will be similar in size to the Russian-Soviet Mir station. Its lifespan is expected to be ten to fifteen years.
“CSS will then complete its construction in just over a year and a half, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station.”Underlined Chen Lan, an analyst at Go-taikonauts.com, a site specializing in the Chinese space program. “In comparison, Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took ten and twelve years to build respectively. »
Aim for the Moon by 2030
Completion of Tiangong will allow China to carry out crew relays into orbit for the first time. This relay should take place in December, when astronauts from the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently on the space station, will give way to Shenzhou-15. The Tiangong will welcome six crew members over the next few days.
China was pressured to build its own station due to the United States’ refusal to allow participation in the ISS. The Asian giant has been investing billions of euros in its space program for decades.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. In early 2019, it landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it brought back samples from the moon and finalized its satellite navigation system, Beidu, a competitor to American GPS. In 2021, China lands a small robot on Mars and plans to send humans to the moon by 2030.