China on Thursday launched the core module for its first permanent space station as the country pursues its ambitious space programme.
The Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony” module, blasted into space on the Long March-5B Y2 rocket from Hainan, an island in southern China, according to state media.
The module will become the management and control hub of China’s Tiangong space station, which could be operational by the end of next year, state media said.
China is planning for astronauts to live in the core module of the station for up to six months at a time; at least 12 astronauts are training now for such missions.
China has invested heavily in its space programme, a source of national pride and touted as a symbol of the country’s growing technological expertise and strength. Beijing aims to become a major space power by 2030.
On Thursday, Chinese premier Li Keqiang and other civilian and military leaders watched the launch live from a control center in the capital of Beijing.
The Tianhe launch is the first of 11 planned missions to construct and supply the Tiangong station with materials, spare parts and equipment.
One feature will be a node that can dock up to three spacecraft for shorter stays or two for longer stays. It will also have a life support system, recycling urine and carbon dioxide, to lighten the cargo supply load needed to sustain a crew on board for longer periods of time, state media said.
China has been preparing for its own space station for decades after being barred from the International Space Station, the only space station in orbit, largely due to US concerns of espionage.
In March, China and Russia announced plans to build a lunar space station together.
China first sent an astronaut into space on its own rocket in 2003, becoming the third country to do so after the former Soviet Union and the US.
Since then, China has focused on hitting new milestones, matching American and Russian space achievements.
A Chinese probe is due to land on Mars this month, which would make China the second country ever to do so after the US.
The Tianwen-1 space probe launched in July 2020, and began orbiting Mars this February. Its Zhurong rover could soon touch down on Mars; once there, it will be looking for evidence of life on the red planet.
Last year, China successfully landed a rover on the far side of the Moon. That probe, the Chang’e 5, returned to Earth in December 2020, with lunar rocks and soil – the first moon samples to be retrieved since US missions four decades ago.