“A delicate operation”: China on Sunday launched the second of three modules of its space station under construction into space, an important step towards finalizing the installation.
The craft, named Wentian, weighing about 20 tons and without an astronaut on board, was launched by a Long March 5B rocket at 2:22 pm (6:22 GMT) from the Wenchang Launch Center on the (south) tropical island of Hainan. According to images from public television CCTV.
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 separated from the rocket to place itself in the planned orbit”, hailed the space agency in charge of manned flights (CMSA), qualifying the launch as a “total success”.
About 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, this laboratory module must arrive at Tianhe, the station’s first module that has already been in orbit since April 2021.
The mooring operation is a challenge for the crew, as it requires several continuous, high-precision manipulations, especially with a robotic arm.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told AFP, “This is the first time that China has had to dock such large vehicles together” and “it’s a delicate operation.”
A manipulation that will be repeated in 2022 with the arrival of a new laboratory module.
Ultimately, “this will allow the station to be more capable, to do more science experiments with space and energy,” McDowell said.
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 Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), but also known by its acronym CSS (English for “Chinese Space Station”), 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 should be at least 10 years, even 15 years.
“CSS will then complete its construction in just one and a half years, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station,” said 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 10 and 12 years to build respectively. »
Moon and Mars
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.
Tiangong will then host the six crew members for several days.
China has pushed to build its own station because of 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.