SCIENCE – Hundreds of enthusiasts gathered on the beach of the tropical island of Hainan to take photos of the launcher rising through the air in a plume of white smoke. China launched the second of three modules of its under-construction space station into space this Sunday, July 24, a major step toward finalizing the installation. You can watch in the video at the top of the article.
The craft, named Wentian, which weighs about 20 tons and has no astronauts on board, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center at 2:22 p.m. (local time). After about eight minutes of flight, “Wentian successfully separated from the rocket to place itself in the planned orbit”, hailed the Space Agency responsible for manned flights (CMSA), calling the launch a “total success”.
“A delicate operation”
About 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, this laboratory module will be docked to Tianhe, the station’s first module, which has already been in orbit since April 2021. The docking operation poses a challenge to the crew as it requires several successive manipulations. , high precision, especially with a robotic arm.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told AFP, “This is the first time China has docked such a large vehicle 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, with space and power, to do more science experiments,” McDowell noted.
A Chinese space station going to launch soon?
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 a year and a half, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station,” said Chen Lan, an analyst at the Go Tyconauts.com site, which specializes in the Chinese space program. “In comparison, Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took 10 and 12 years to build, respectively.”
Objective: Moon then 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 humans to the moon by 2030.
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