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China is launching the third and final component of its space station

The laboratory module of China's Mengtian Space Station is ready for launch
The laboratory module of China’s Mengtian Space Station and the Long March 5B Y4 launch vehicle are seen on the launch tower at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on October 31, 2022 in Wenchang, China’s Hainan Province.

Hou Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

Beijing — China on Monday launched the third and final module to complete its permanent space station, completing more than a decade of work to maintain a permanent crew presence in orbit.

Mengtian was blasted into space at 3:39 p.m. local time (3:39 a.m. EDT) on Monday from the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the southern tropical island province of Hainan.

A large crowd of amateur photographers, space enthusiasts and various observers watched the takeoff from a nearby beach.

Many waved Chinese flags and wore T-shirts emblazoned with China, reflecting the deep national pride invested in the space program and the technological progress it represents.

Mengtian, or “Heavenly Sleep”, joins Wentian as the second laboratory module for the station known as Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”. Both are connected to the Tianhe main module where the crew lives and works.

Like its predecessors, the Mengtian was launched aboard the Long March-5B Y4 launch vehicle, a member of China’s most powerful launch vehicle family from Hainan.

According to the China Manned Space Agency, Mengtian was expected to spend 13 hours in flight before reaching Tiangong, which is inhabited by a crew of two male and one female astronauts.

Chen Dong, Cai Xuzhe and Liu Yang arrived at the beginning of June for a six-month stayduring which they will complete the assembly of the station, conduct spacewalks and conduct additional experiments.

After Mentian’s arrival, an additional uncrewed Tianzhou cargo ship is due to dock with the station next month, and another crewed mission is planned for December, at which time the crews can cross over – Tiangong has space for six astronauts.

The Mengtian weighs about 20 tons, is 58.7 feet long, and has a diameter of 13.8 feet. It will provide space for zero-gravity experiments, a gateway for exposure to the vacuum of space, and a small robotic arm to support extravehicular payloads.

Already in orbit, the 23-ton Wentian Laboratory is designed for scientific and biological experiments and is heavier than any other single-module spacecraft currently in space.

Next year, China plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit in tandem with the station and may dock with it from time to time for maintenance.

In total, the station will have about 3,880 cubic feet of internal pressurized space.

This year marks the official three-decade anniversary of China’s manned space program. But it really began in 2003, when China became only the third country, after the United States and Russia, to send a man into space using its own resources.

The program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and is carried out methodically and almost entirely without outside support. The US excluded China from the International Space Station because of its military ties.

Before the launch of the Tianhe module, China’s manned space program launched a pair of single-module stations that were briefly used as test platforms.

China’s permanent station will weigh about 66 tons — a fraction of the size of the ISS — which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 465 tons.

With a life expectancy of 10-15 years, Tiangong may one day be the only space station still in operation if the ISS sticks to its 30-year operational plan.

China has also had success with unmanned missions, and its lunar exploration program caused a media stir last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back images of what some called a “mysterious hut” but was likely just a rock. The rover is the first to land on the unexplored far side of the Moon.

China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned moon rocks to Earth in December 2000 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars. Officials are also considering a manned mission to the moon.

The program has also been controversial. In October 2021, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed a report that China had tested a hypersonic rocket two months earlier, saying it was simply testing the reusability of the new spacecraft.

China is also reported to be developing a top secret space plane.

China’s space program has progressed cautiously and has largely been uneventful.

However, there are claims against China allowing the rocket stages to fall uncontrollably to Earthd twice before. NASA accused Beijing last year of “failing to meet responsible space debris standards” after parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.


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