China launches rocket with core module for its space station

Beijing, April 29, (dpa/GNA) - China launched a rocket carrying the core module for its first permanent space station on Thursday.

A Long March 5B rocket lifted off from the Wenchang space port on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.

The rocket is carrying the Tianhe (Heavenly Harmony) core module for the Tiangong (Heaven's Palace) space station, which is due to be completed around 2022.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called the space station an "important flagship project for building a strong country in science, technology and space." He congratulated the team and said those in charge should push forward "the spirit of innovation and self-reliance."

China's Premier Li Keqiang also watched the launch from the Beijing Space Centre.

Ten minutes after take-off, the module successfully separated from the missile, which triggered loud applause in the control centre. Shortly afterwards, the solar sails also opened smoothly.

A little later, Tianhe also reached its predetermined orbit, Chinese state media reported.

Two further Chinese space flights are set to follow in the coming weeks.

The Tianzhou 2 cargo craft is due to dock in May, carrying fuel and supplies.

And in June, three astronauts are preparing to fly aboard the Shenzhou 12 to Tianhe, and are scheduled to stay for three months.

The construction phase requires a crowded flight schedule: A total of 11 flights are planned: three flights with modules, four cargo missions and four manned space flights.

The Tiangong space station would be the second permanent outpost in space after the International Space Station (ISS). If the ISS were to cease service as planned in 2024, China would become the only nation to operate a space station.

The Tianhe core module is 16.6 metres long with a diameter of 4.2 metres. It is to provide electricity and propulsion and has accommodation for three astronauts - or taikonauts as they are known in China - to stay on board for up to six months.

Two other parts will be attached to form a T shape.

At around 90 tons, the Tiangong space station will be much smaller than the 420-ton ISS.

It is designed to run for 10 years, but with proper maintenance could operate for more than 15 years.

"We will learn how to assemble, operate and maintain large spacecraft in orbit, and we aim to build Tiangong into a state-level space lab supporting the long stay of astronauts and large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments," the space station's chief designer Bai Linhou told Xinhua news agency.

China's space station efforts come almost three decades after it first drew up similar plans.

However, delays were caused by problems with the new rocket, and the programme was condensed in order to be ready in 2022 as planned, putting officials under significant pressure.

"We have to make sure every launch is reliable and operation of spacecraft in orbit is safe and sound. Every mission is a test for our organization, management, technology and support ability," said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space programme.

"In general, a space station demonstrates the breadth of space technology in a country," former German astronaut Reinhold Ewald, now a professor at the University of Stuttgart, told dpa.