China launches new space station module

“A delicate operation”. China on Sunday launched the second of three modules of its under-construction space station into space, a crucial step toward completing the installation.

The machine, named Wentian, about 20 tons and without an astronaut on board, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket at 14:22 (08:22 in Paris) from the Wenchang launch center on the tropical island of Hainan (south. ), according to images from public broadcaster CCTV.

“Total Success”

Hundreds of enthusiasts gathered on nearby beaches to take pictures of the launcher rising through the air in a plume of white smoke. After about eight minutes of flight, “Wentian successfully separated from the rocket to place itself in the planned orbit”, welcomed the Space Agency responsible for manned flights (CMSA), qualifying the launch as “successful overall”. Almost 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, this laboratory module will dock at Tianhe, the first module of the station, which has already been in orbit since April 2021.

The mooring operation poses a challenge to the crew because it requires several successive manipulations with high precision, especially with a robotic arm. “This is the first time that China has had to anchor such large vehicles together” and “it is a delicate operation”, explains 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. Ultimately, “this will allow the station to be much more efficient with the space and power needed to carry out more science experiments,” emphasizes Jonathan McDowell.

” The fastest “

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 should be at least 10 years, if not 15 years. “CSS will then have completed its construction in just one and a half years, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station,” said Chen Lan, an analyst at the Go Taikonauts.com site, specializing in the Chinese space program. “In comparison, the construction of Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took 10 and 12 years respectively. »

The Moon and Mars

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 host 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.

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