China continues its space conquest and launches a new module of its space station

“A dangerous operation” : China launched, on Sunday July 24, into space the second of the three modules of its space station under construction, a significant step towards the end of the installation.

The machine, named “Wentian”, weighing about twenty tons and without an astronaut on board, was launched by a Longue-Marche 5B rocket at 2:22 p.m. (8:22 a.m. Paris) from at the Wenchang launch center, in a tropical area. Hainan island (South), according to images from public television CCTV. Hundreds of enthusiasts gathered on nearby beaches to take pictures of the launcher rising into the air in a plume of white smoke.

After about eight minutes of flight, “Wentian successfully separated from the rocket, into the planned orbit”welcomes the space agency that manages manned flights (CMSA), which describes the launch of “full success”.

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An ambitious docking operation

Nearly 18 meters long and 4.2 meters in diameter, this laboratory module due to the docking of Tianhe, the first module of the station, which has been in orbit since April 2021. , high-precision manipulations, especially already in the robotic arm.

“This is the first time that China has to dock such large vehicles,” and “This is a dangerous operation”, explains, to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in the United States. A manipulation that must be repeated with the arrival, later in 2022, of the new laboratory module.

[A terme], it will allow the station to become more capable, with space and power to carry out more scientific experiments”taught Mr. McDowell.

“Heavenly Palace”

Equipped with three sleeping quarters, a toilet and a kitchen, Wentian will serve as a backup platform to control the station in case of failure. The module also has spaces for scientific experiments and includes an airlock that may be the preferred route for spacewalks.

Named in Chinese as “Tiangong” (“heavenly palace”) but also known by its acronym CSS (for “Chinese space station”, in English), China’s space station should be fully operational by the end of the year.

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After Wentian this weekend, the three astronauts of the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently on the space station, will receive the third and final module, Mengtian, in October. The station will then have the final T shape. It will be similar in size to the defunct Russian-Soviet Mir station. Its life is expected to be ten to fifteen years.

“CSS will then complete its construction in just one and a half years, the fastest pace in history for a modular space station”lined up Chen Lan, an analyst at the site Go-taikonauts.com, which specializes in the Chinese space program. “In comparison, the construction of Mir and the International Space Station (ISS) took ten and twelve years respectively. »

Target month of 2030

The completion of Tiangong will also allow China to perform, for the first time, a crew relay in orbit. This relay should take place in December, when the astronauts of the Shenzhou-14 mission, currently in the space station, will give way to Shenzhou-15. Tiangong will welcome a crew of six in a few days.

China was pushed to build its own station because of the United States’ refusal to allow it to join the ISS. The Asian giant has invested billions of euros in its space program for several decades.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. At the beginning of 2019, it landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it brought samples from the Moon and completed Beidou, its satellite navigation system, a competitor to the American GPS. In 2021, China landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send people to the Moon by 2030.

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The World with AFP

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