China launched the first module of its “Heavenly Palace” space station on Thursday, a milestone in Beijing’s ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence in space.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called the space station a key step in “building a great nation of science and technology” in a congratulatory message Thursday.
The Tianhe core module, which houses life support equipment and a living space for astronauts, was launched from Wenchang in China’s tropical Hainan province on a Long-March 5B rocket on Thursday, state television showed.
China seeks to reflect its rising global stature and growing technological might, following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia and Europe.
The Tiangong space station, whose name means “Heavenly Palace”, is expected to be operational by 2022 after around 11 missions to deliver more modules and assemble them in orbit.
The completed station will be similar to the Soviet “Mir” station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.
The Chinese space station is expected to remain in low orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres above Earth for a lifespan of around 15 years.
The completed station, weighing little more than 90 tons, will be around a quarter the size of the International Space Station.
The station will have two other modules for scientific study and will be equipped with solar panels as well as experimental equipment including an ultracold atomic experiment apparatus, according to the Chinese Society of Astronautics.
The core module will give three astronauts 50 cubic metres of living space, equipped with advanced telecommunications equipment that will allow astronauts to browse websites “no differently from normal people using the internet and phones on Earth”, Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station, said.