China nears completion of space station, final module docks with Tiangong

On Monday, China launched the third and final module of its space station. It will be the second permanently operating outpost in low-Earth orbit, following NASA’s International Space Station.

The unmanned Mengtian, or “Dreaming of the Heavens,” module was launched at 3:37 PM (0737 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern island province of Hainan by China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5B. Deng Hongqin, director of the launch command centre, stated that the module was in orbit after 14 minutes.

The 23-ton, 59-foot-long Mengtian module connected with the Tiangong space station 13 hours after launch. The module includes a variety of scientific equipment, including exceptionally precise atomic clocks and equipment designed to replicate the coldest conditions yet reached by humans.

Image: AFP

China has successfully launched the core module, three manned spacecraft, the Wentian lab module, and six cargo spacecraft to develop Tiangong during the last two years. According to the space agency, the three-member crew of the Shenzhou-14 mission, who are now living in the space station, will be joined by three additional astronauts to finish the construction of Tiangong by the end of this year.

China barred from the International Space Station since 2011

Since 2011, when Washington prohibited NASA from interacting with Beijing, China has been barred from the International Space Station (ISS). The completion of the Chinese space station is the latest step in Beijing’s larger goal to challenge, and eventually surpass, the United States in space exploration, as well as to develop a wide base of information for China’s enormous and rapidly rising scientific establishment.

Tianhe, the station’s main module, was launched into orbit last year. China followed in July by launching the first of two scientific modules, the Wentian, which docked with the core. With the Mengtian module docked, the full space station resembles a “T” configuration. Tiangong, which translates as “heavenly palace,” will be operational for around a decade and will host a range of near-zero gravity experiments.

International interest in experiments to be conducted on the Chinese station will rise if the ISS retires in the upcoming years. The ISS has held more than 3,000 scientific experiments since November 2000. China has granted approval to at least nine proposals from researchers in countries ranging from India to Switzerland for the first round of testing carried out in partnership with the United Nations Space Agency.

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