China on Thursday sent the Tianhe core module of its space station into orbit at Wenchang Launch Center in Hainan province, kicking off a series of missions aimed at completing the construction of the station by the end of next year.
Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council, and Wang Huning, secretary of the Central Secretariat, watched the launch from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a message of congratulations for the successful launch of Tianhe, saying the success marks China’s space station construction entering into the all-round execution phase, laying a solid foundation for following missions.
Xi also said: “I hope you will vigorously carry forward the spirit of ‘Two Bombs and One Satellite’ and the spirit of manned spaceflight, be self-dependent and innovative to win the victory of space station construction, and contribute to the construction of a modern socialist country!”
The 16.6-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe – meaning “harmony of the heavens” – core module is the largest and most complex spacecraft independently developed by China. The work and living space inside reaches 50 cubic meters, which can support three astronauts staying for long periods of time.
The Long March 5B, the carrier for the core module, is a new type of carrier rocket specially developed for China’s space station, with the largest carrying capacity in low Earth orbit. Li Dong, the chief designer of the rocket system, said, “Only the Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket can e used for launching the manned cabin.”
“The Tianhe module will act as the management and control hub of the space station Tiangong, meaning Heavenly Palace, with a node that could dock with up to three spacecraft at a time for short stays, or two for long ones to carry out aerospace medicine, space science experiments and technical experiments,” Wang Xiang, commander of the space station mission of the Fifth Academy of Aerospace Science and Technology Group, said.
The station will operate in the low-Earth orbit at an altitude varying from 340 km to 450 km in 2022. It will be T-shaped with the Tianhe core module at the center and a lab capsule on each side named by Wentian and Mengtian. The lab capsules will serve for scientific experiments in biology, materials, microgravity fluid and basic physics.
Equipped with a special airlock cabin for astronauts’ extravehicular activities, the Wengtian will mainly be used to carry out space science and technical experiments in and out of the cabin. It will also provide a working and living place and emergency shelter for astronauts. In addition to features similar to those of the Wentian, the Mengtian will be equipped with a special airlock cabin supporting the automatic entry and exit of cargo.
The Wenchang Space Launch Center is the only coastal one in China. Since last year, it has successfully launched the country’s first Mars probe and other major spacecraft.
The construction phase of China’s space station began nearly 30 years after the project was first approved, back in 1992.
Across this period China has developed and tested the Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March 2F for human spaceflight, Tianlian relay satellites, rendezvous and docking technologies, refueling in microgravity, new launch vehicles and the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center.