China launched the first lab module for its under-construction space station on Sunday, the latest step in the country’s ambitious plan to complete it by the end of the year. According to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the massive Long March-5B Y3 carrier rocket carrying Wentian blasted off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the coast of the southern island province of Hainan .
The new module will serve as a backup for the core module, Tianhe, as well as a powerful scientific experiment platform in the country’s space station, which is currently under construction. According to the state-run People’s Daily, China is on track to complete the construction of its space station after successfully launching the first lab module. The construction of China’s space station called Tiangong is expected to be completed this year.
It will then evolve from a single-module structure into a national space laboratory with three modules: the core module, Tianhe, and two lab modules, Wentian and Mengtian. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the Tianhe module will be launched in April 2021, and the Mengtian module will be launched in October of this year. The Wentian will rendezvous with and dock with the Tiangong station’s Tianhe core module in the coming hours, according to the CMSA.
The three-member crew mission commanders — Senior Colonel Chen Dong, Senior Colonel Liu Yang, and Senior Colonel Cai Xuzhe, who are currently building Tiangong station — will then enter the lab module to inspect its condition and internal equipment, according to the report. In the coming weeks, Wentian will be repositioned by a robotic apparatus from the forward docking port to a lateral port, where it will remain and be prepared for long-term operation, it said.
To prepare for the arrival of the Wentian, a cargo spacecraft Tianzhou 3 separated from the Tiangong station on July 17 and will be guided by ground controllers to fall back to Earth in due course, according to the statement. Tiangong is currently made up of the Tianhe module, the Tianzhou 4 cargo ship, and the Shenzhou XIV spacecraft. According to the state-run China Daily, the Wentian lab features cutting-edge technologies, strong capabilities, and sophisticated design, and it represents a new milestone in China’s space industry.
It is divided into three sections: a crew working compartment, an airlock cabin, and an unpressurised service module. When completed, China’s low-flying space station will be the only one in the world. The Russian International Space Station (ISS) is a joint project of several countries. The China Space Station (CSS) is also expected to compete with Russia’s ISS. CSS may become the sole space station to remain in orbit once the ISS retires in the coming years, according to observers.
The two robotic arms on China’s under-construction space station are notable features, particularly the long one, about which the US has previously expressed concern about its ability to grab objects from space, including satellites. According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the 10-meter-long arm previously successfully grabbed and moved a 20-tonne Tianzhou-2 cargo ship in a test (CMSEO).