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China launches second of three space station modules

China on Sunday launched the second of three modules needed to complete its new space station, state media reported, the latest step in Beijing’s ambitious space program.

The uncrewed craft, named Wentian, was propelled by a Long March 5B rocket at 2:22 p.m. (0622 GMT) from the Wenchang Launch Center on China’s tropical island of Hainan.

A quarter of an hour later, an official from the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) confirmed the “success” of the launch.

Hundreds of people gathered on a nearby beach to take pictures of the launcher billowing into the air in a plume of white smoke.

After about eight minutes of flight, “the Wentian Lab Module successfully separated from the rocket and entered its intended orbit, making the launch a complete success,” CMSA said.

Beijing launched the central module of its space station Tiangong – meaning “heavenly palace” – in April 2021.

About 18 meters (60 feet) long and weighing 22 tons (48,500 pounds), the new module has three sleeping quarters and space for scientific experiments.

It will dock with existing modules in space, a challenging operation that experts say will require several high-precision manipulations and the use of a robotic arm.

“This is the first time that China has docked such a large vehicle together, which is a delicate operation,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

He said that until the next module arrives, the space station will have a “tremendous L-shape” that will require a lot of energy to stabilize.

“These are all technical challenges that the USSR pioneered with the Mir station in the late 1980s, but this is new for China,” he told AFP.

“But it will also result in a much more capable station with the space and power to run more scientific experiments.”

Wentian will serve as a backup platform that can take control of the space station in case of failure.

The third and final module is scheduled to dock in October, and Tiangong – which should have a lifespan of at least 10 years – is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year.

– Fast Space Planning –

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, plans for the country’s much-touted “space dream” have gone into overdrive.

China has made great strides to catch up with the United States and Russia, where astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.

“The CSS (Chinese Space Station) will complete its construction in a year and a half… which will be the fastest for any modular space station in history,” said Chen Lan, an analyst at the site Expert in China’s space program.

“By comparison, Mir and the International Space Station took 10 and 12 years to build, respectively.”

China’s space program has already landed a rover on Mars and sent probes to the Moon.

In addition to a space station, Beijing plans to build a base on the moon and send humans there by 2030.

China has been excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from being involved with the country.

Although China does not plan to use its space station for global cooperation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign cooperation.

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