China has launched the first part of a space station that will remain in orbit for at least a decade, as Beijing forges ahead in its quest to become a leader in exploring the cosmos.
The 54-metre Long March 5B rocket lifted off from the Wenchang launch site in China’s Hainan province on Thursday and flew south-east through the upper atmosphere before depositing the core module of the station in orbit.
The Tianhe, meaning “harmony of the heavens,” module launch was the first of 11 missions that will add two more components and carry supplies and crew to the station before it becomes fully operational late next year.
The station is set to remain in orbit for at least 10 years and will be able to host three astronauts for missions of up to half a year. Taikonauts, as Chinese astronauts are called, are expected to visit the station this summer.
China’s manned space programme, launched in 1992, has progressed rapidly since President Xi Jinping made cosmic exploration a central part of Beijing’s ambitions to demonstrate its world-leading technological prowess.
But those advances have also raised the prospect of a space race, with some defence officials in Washington fearing China is developing military applications as part of its efforts.
China was barred in 2011 from the International Space Station, which was principally built and operated by the US. Congress had banned Nasa from working with Beijing over national security and technology theft concerns.
China and Russia announced plans last month to jointly build a station on the moon. Moscow said last week that it would withdraw from the ISS in 2025.
China has made significant progress towards closing the US lead in space flight, and has passed milestones including landing on the far side of the moon in 2019 and bringing back samples of soil and rocks in December, a first since 1976.
But its programme has also suffered setbacks. The core module of the space station was originally planned to be deposited in orbit in 2018 but was delayed after the high-profile failure of a Long March launch the year prior.
The completed Chinese station, while smaller than either the ISS or the decommissioned Russian Mir, will give Beijing a central role in international space research. It could also become the only permanent station in orbit, after the decommissioning of the ISS, which was originally planned for 2024.