“A delicate operation” : China on Sunday, July 24, launched the second of the three modules of its space station under construction into space, a crucial step towards the completion of the installation.
The machine, called “Wentian”, weighing about twenty tons and without an astronaut on board, was propelled by a Longue-Marche 5B rocket at the island of Hainan (South), according to images from public television CCTV. Hundreds of enthusiasts gathered on nearby beaches to take pictures of the launcher rising through the air in a plume of white smoke.
After approximately eight minutes of flight, “Wentian was successfully separated from the rocket, into the planned trajectory”welcomed the Manned Space Agency (CMSA) and described the launch of “complete success”.
An ambitious docking operation
This laboratory module, which is almost 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, will dock at Tianhe, the station’s first module, which has already been in orbit since April 2021. The docking operation poses a challenge to the crew because it requires several consecutive, high-precision manipulations, especially with a robotic arm.
“This is the first time China has had to dock such large vehicles together,” and “It’s a delicate operation”, explains to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in the United States. A manipulation to be repeated with the arrival, later in 2022, of a new laboratory module.
“ [A terme], this will allow the station to be much more capable with space and power to conduct more science experiments”points out Mr McDowell.
Equipped with three berths, a toilet and a kitchen, Wentian will act as a backup platform to control the station in the event of a failure. The module also has space for scientific experiments and includes an airlock that will be the preferred passage for spacewalks.
Named in Chinese “Tiangong” (“heavenly palace”), but also known by its acronym CSS (for “Chinese space station”, in English), the Chinese space station should be fully operational by the end of the year.
After Wentian this weekend, the three astronauts from the Shenzhou-14 mission currently on the space station will welcome the third and final module, Mengtian, there in October. The station will then take on its final T-shaped shape, and it will be similar in size to the defunct Russian-Soviet Mir station. Its lifespan is expected to be ten to fifteen years.
“CSS will then have completed its construction in just a year and a half, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station”emphasizes Chen Lan, analyst at the website Go-taikonauts.com, which specializes in the Chinese space program. “By comparison, the construction of Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took ten and twelve years, respectively. »
Monthly target by 2030
Completion of Tiangong will also allow China to perform a crew relay in orbit for the first time. This relay was supposed to take place in December, when the astronauts from the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently in the space station, will give way to Shenzhou-15. Tiangong will then welcome the six crew members for several days.
China was pressured to build its own station due to the United States’ refusal to allow it to participate in the ISS. The Asian giant has invested billions of euros in its space program for decades.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. In early 2019, it landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it brought back samples from the Moon and completed Beidou, its satellite navigation system, a competitor to the US GPS. In 2021, China landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send people to the Moon in 2030.