China launches new space station module

“A subtle operation”. China on Sunday launched the second of three modules of its space station under construction into space, a major step towards finalizing the installation.

The vehicle, called Wentian, weighing about 20 tons and without an astronaut on board, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the tropical island of Hainan (south) at 2:22 p.m. (8:22 p.m. Paris), public television CCTV image. According to

“Total Success”

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 because it requires several continuous, high-precision manipulations, especially with a robotic arm. “This is the first time that China has had to dock such a large vehicle together” and “it’s a delicate operation”, explained astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US. A manipulation that will be repeated in 2022 with the arrival of a new laboratory module. Ultimately, “this will allow the station to be much more efficient, with the space and power needed to carry out more scientific experiments”, underlines Jonathan McDowell.

“faster”

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, three astronauts from the Shenzhou-14 mission currently aboard the space station will welcome the third and final module, Mengtian, there 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 life span should be at least 10 years if not 15 years. “CSS will then complete its construction in just a year and a half, 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 conduct a crew relay 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 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 people to the moon by 2030.

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