The final module of China’s Tiangong space station was successfully docked to the core structure on Tuesday, state media said — an important step in its completion by the end of the year and a milestone in the country’s space ambitions.
Tiangong is one of the crown jewels in Beijing’s well-funded program — which has landed robot rovers on Mars and the moon, making the country only the third to put humans into orbit — because it seems to be catching up with large space forces such as the United States and Russia.
China has been barred from the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011, when Washington banned NASA from contacting Beijing.
The completion of Tiangong would signal that “China is now an equal player in space with the United States, Russia and Europe,” analyst Chen Lan told AFP.
“In terms of scientific and commercial aspects, it’s always good to see new players coming…. Competition will always accelerate innovation,” he added.
The lab module, dubbed Mengtian — or “dreams of heaven” — was launched on a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang launch center on the tropical island of Hainan in China, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Amateur photographers and space enthusiasts watched the launch, which took place at 3:27 p.m. local time (0727 GMT), from a nearby beach.
About 10 minutes later, the event was declared a “complete success” by launch site commander Deng Hongqin.
About 13 hours later, in the early hours of Tuesday in Beijing, Mengtian docked at the Tianhe core module, Xinhua news agency said, citing the China Manned Space Agency.
– Cold Atomic Clocks –
In the past two years, China has successfully sent the core module, three manned spacecraft, the Wentian lab module and several cargo spacecraft to build Tiangong.
Mengtian is the third and final main part of the T-shaped space station and is almost 18 meters long and weighs 23 tons.
It carries scientific equipment that will be used to study microgravity and conduct experiments in fluid physics, materials science, combustion science and fundamental physics, the space agency said.
It also carries “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system,” Xinhua reported.
“If successful, the cold atomic clocks will form the most accurate time and frequency system in space, not losing a second in hundreds of millions of years,” said Zhang Wei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The three-member crew of the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently living on the space station, will be joined by three more astronauts by the end of this year to complete construction of Tiangong, according to the space agency.
Once completed, the Tiangong Space Station is expected to have a mass of 90 tons — about a quarter of the ISS — or comparable in size to the Soviet-built Mir station that orbited from the 1980s to 2001. the earth turned.
Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace,” will be in operation for about ten years, hosting a variety of experiments in nearly zero gravity.
Next year, Beijing plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope with a field of view 350 times that of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.