China launches key module of space station planned for 2022

A Long March 5B rocket carrying China's Tianhe space station core module lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China's Hainan province on Thursday

It was only the third country to independently do so after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Another 10 launches will send up two more modules where crews will conduct experiments, four cargo supply shipments and four missions with crews.

"(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space", state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.

Live footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed space programme employees cheering as the rocket powered its way through the atmosphere billowing flames from the launch site.

"A palace in the sky will no longer be just a romantic fantasy of the ancients", the CCTV anchor said.

Tianhe, or "Heavenly Harmony" is planned to be inserted directly into a low Earth orbit with an apogee of around 370 kilometers and inclined by 41 degrees. The station is created to operate for at least 10 years.

The station will have two other modules for scientific study and will be equipped with solar panels as well as experimental equipment including an ultracold atomic experiment apparatus, according to the Chinese Society of Astronautics.

September 29, 2011: The 10.4-metre-long (34.1-foot) Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace 1", was launched to carry out docking and orbit experiments.

September 15, 2016: Tiangong-2 was launched. Russian Federation said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.

With the construction of the space station, China has started its largest ambitious space program project to date.

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"The station is also expected to contribute to the peaceful development and utilization of space resources through global cooperation, as well as to enrich technologies and experience for China's future explorations into deeper space", Bai said, according to Xinhua.

At Wenchuan Space Station on Hainan Island in southern China, the launcher has been ready on the launch pad since the weekend. Experiment modules named Wentian and Mengtian, expected to launch in 2022, will host a plethora of experiments in areas including astronomy, space medicine, space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion and space technologies.

The country has come a long way since its first satellite in 1970.

It put the first Chinese "taikonaut" in space in 2003 and landed the Chang'e-4 robot on the far side of the Moon in 2019 - a historic first.

The wheeled probe is expected to touch down on the surface of Mars in mid-May.

It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China launched its first satellite on a Long March rocket. The uncrewed Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is now expected to rendezvous and dock with Tianhe in mid-late May, ahead of the visit of three astronauts aboard Shenzhou-12 in June.

In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video class from inside the space module to children across the world's most populous country. A Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou spacecraft will also be on standby at all times at Jiuquan to perform emergency rescue missions to the space station, a senior space official stated in March.

In 2016, China launched its second orbital lab, the Tiangong-2. Two other T-shaped scientific experiments parts are attached.

An artist's impression of China's planned space station. In December, its Chang'e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the USA missions of the 1970s.

The Tianwen-1 space probe has been orbiting the red planet since February while collecting data. It's set to land on Mars in the coming weeks.

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