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Aerospace & Defense

China rocket launch kicks off first manned space station

Mission comes two weeks ahead of country's planned debut Mars landing

A Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China's space station Tianhe, lifts off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan Province on April 29.   © AP

SHANGHAI -- China successfully launched a rocket on Thursday carrying the core capsule for the construction of the country's maiden space station, a mission that shows the country's progress toward greater technological independence.

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket left its launchpad in the southern province of Hainan shortly after 11:22 a.m. local time, according to the China National Space Administration, with the core capsule Tianhe, or Harmony of Heavens.

The launch was broadcast live on national television and social media, with People's Daily's coverage attracting more than 12 million views via the Weibo microblogging service at one point. "Never forget the original mission to strengthen our motherland through aerospace," one post said.

When complete, Tianhe, which measures 16.6 meters by 4.2 meters, will form the key structure of a 90-metric-ton T-shape space station called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, becoming the second such space facility in orbit following the International Space Station. The ISS is sponsored by the U.S. and countries including Russia, Japan and Canada.

Tiangong, scheduled for completion next year, will consist of the core capsule and two experimental modules to host astronauts and their scientific research.

A screen displays a rendering of the space station at an exhibition at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing.   © Reuters

It is expected to run for 15 years and could be the only space station left when the ISS, which celebrated 20 years in operation last year, reaches the end of its working life a decade from now.

China's space exploration program has gathered pace under President Xi Jinping, who aims to cut reliance on foreign technology under the country's latest five-year economic plan which runs through 2025. In an article published last month, Xi said advancement in science and technology is a means to achieve prosperity and national rejuvenation.

"China cannot ask for, buy or beg for core technologies in key fields from other countries," Xi was quoted by the state-run Xinhua News Agency on March 15. "Only by holding these technologies in our own hands can we ensure economic security, national security and security in other areas."

Thursday's launch marks the second for the Long March 5B, the country's heavy-duty orbital rocket that made its maiden flight last year.

Tiangong will operate in a low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 340 km to 450 km, Xinhua said in a report on Thursday.

"We will learn how to assemble, operate and maintain large spacecraft in orbit, and we aim to build Tiangong into a state-level space lab supporting the long stay of astronauts and large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments," said Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the China Academy of Space Technology, which is under CAST Corp.

"The station is also expected to contribute to the peaceful development and utilization of space resources through international cooperation, as well as to enrich technologies and experience for China's future explorations into deeper space," Bai said, according to Xinhua.

The country has more than 40 orbital launches planned for this year, according to CAST, reflecting the country's space exploration ambitions at a time when the U.S. is barely increasing funding for the costly National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

U.S. President Joe Biden proposed earlier this month a $24.7 billion budget allocation for NASA for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, an increase of $1.5 billion from the current year.

China, which completed 39 launch missions last year, or about one third of the world's total, has a spaceship currently orbiting Mars ahead of a planned landing scheduled for mid-May, according to officials. If successful, China will be the second country after the U.S. to land a rover on Mars, the nearest planet to Earth.

China's unmanned moon mission in December carried rocks and soil sample back to Earth, making it the third country after the U.S. and Russia to carry out this feat.

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