Science

China launches first element of its space station

Soon Chinese permanently in space? China launched Thursday the first of three elements of its space station, the “CSS”, whose construction will require until the end of 2022 about ten missions.

The central Tianhe module (“Celestial Harmony”), the future home of astronauts, was propelled by a Long-March 5B rocket from the Wenchang launch center, on the tropical island of Hainan (south), according to television public CCTV.

Hundreds of enthusiasts gathered on nearby beaches to take photos of the launcher rising into the air in a plume of white smoke.

Enthusiasts gathered on the beaches around the launch center in Wenchang, Hainan (southern China) to watch the launch of the first of the three elements of the Chinese space station on April 29, 2021 (AFP – STR, STR)

President Xi Jinping sent in a telegram his “warm congratulations” to the technical teams, the space station being a “major project to make the country a powerhouse of science, technology and space”.

The station will indeed be “a major breakthrough” for China, told AFP Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in the United States.

“This should allow it to have a permanent human presence in space and therefore significantly increase the experience of its astronauts.”

Named in English CSS (for “Chinese Space Station”) and in Chinese Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), it will evolve in low earth orbit between 340 and 450 km altitude.

The Russian-Soviet space station Mir photographed from the Discovery shuttle on an unspecified date (AFP / Archives - -)

The Russian-Soviet space station Mir photographed from the Discovery shuttle on an unspecified date (AFP / Archives – -)

Similar to the former Russian-Soviet “Mir” station (1986-2001), its expected service life will be 10-15 years.

“It will serve as a base for larger-scale operations: manned missions to the Moon, space tourism, space science or even concrete applications for humans”, notes Chen Lan, analyst at GoTaikonauts.com, specializing in the Chinese space program. .

– “Competition” –

When complete, the CSS should weigh almost 100 tonnes. For comparison, it will be about three times smaller (in size) than the International Space Station (ISS).

The Tianhe module launched on Thursday will be the central element of the future station and will also be its control post.

To finalize the construction of the CSS, China should launch around ten missions until the end of 2022, some of which are manned. No specific timeline has been released.

Next steps, however: a cargo vessel, Tianzhou-2, should be launched and dock in Tianhe, a priori in May. Then the manned mission “Shenzhou 12” must take astronauts on board this CSS under construction in June.

Image provided by NASA on March 24, 2020 showing the lights of cities at the junction of Europe and Asia, seen from the International Space Station in orbit four days earlier (NASA / AFP / Archives - Handout)

Image provided by NASA on March 24, 2020 showing the lights of cities at the junction of Europe and Asia, seen from the International Space Station in orbit four days earlier (NASA / AFP / Archives – Handout)

With the ISS headed by the American space agency (Nasa), there will therefore be two stations in orbit around the Earth.

“Politically, this symbolizes the strengthening of competition between the United States and China,” notes Chen Lan.

Due to its size and its international cooperation for the moment limited, the Chinese station does not however have the means to be a competitor of the ISS, “which is generally more mature and efficient”, estimates Jonathan McDowell.

Beijing, however, said it was open to collaborations with abroad. Chinese and UN scientists have thus selected experiments by foreign researchers, which will be carried out in the future CSS.

– Moon and Mars –

“These visitors will carry out experiments, but they will be more tourists than partners in the operation of the station, unlike the more active role that Japanese and European astronauts have in the ISS,” notes McDowell.

“Russia and Pakistan will most likely be the first partners and could be followed by the European Space Agency (ESA)”, but this latest collaboration is “very uncertain” because “the political climate has changed a lot”, notes Mr. Chen , in reference to the tensions around Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Will foreign astronauts ever climb into CSS? Perhaps, but no chance of seeing an American there: an American law prohibits NASA from any connection with China.

The Asian giant has been investing billions in its space program for several decades.

Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei landing in Inner Mongolia on October 16, 2003 (XINHUA / AFP / Archives - XINHUA)

Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei landing in Inner Mongolia on October 16, 2003 (XINHUA / AFP / Archives – XINHUA)

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. The country landed a machine on the far side of the moon in early 2019 – a world first.

Last year, he brought back samples of the Moon and finalized Beidou, his satellite navigation system (competitor of the American GPS).

China plans to land a robot on Mars next month or to send humans to the Moon by 2030. It has also announced that it wants to build a lunar base with Russia.

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