China on Thursday launched the first of three components for its space station, an ambitious project for Beijing that should eventually allow it to have permanent astronauts in space.
The Tianhe Central Unit (“Celestial Harmony”) was propelled by a Long-March 5B missile from the Wenchang Launch Center, on the equatorial island of Hainan (south).
The assembly of the Chinese space station should spread out over a period of more than a year, during about ten successive missions (including four manned missions). It should be fully operational in 2022.
Similarities with Mir station
Named CSS in English (for “Chinese Space Station”), it will operate in low Earth orbit (altitude between 340 and 450 km) and will resemble the old Russian station “Mir” (1986-2001). Life expectancy: from 10 to 15 years.
It is expected that its total weight will reach more than 90 tons. For comparison, it will be three times smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) that French astronaut Thomas Pesquet is currently located on.
At 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, the Tianhe unit, which will be the central part of CSS, will be the astronauts’ living space and station control center.
CSS, whose Chinese name is Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), will coexist in Earth orbit with the International Space Station – which should continue to operate for several more years.
If the Chinese station is not intended to become a place of international cooperation like the International Space Station, China has declared that it is open to cooperation with the outside.
After being poor, China has invested billions in its space program for decades to catch up with Europeans, Russians and Americans.
The Asian giant sent its first astronaut into space in 2003.
China landed a device on the far side of the Moon in early 2019 – for the first time in the world. Last year, I brought samples from the moon.
It plans to land a small, wheeled robot on Mars in May. And the Chinese space agency announced last month that it wanted to build a base on the moon with Russia.