China ready to launch Wentian module for Tiangong space station on Sunday

China is expected to launch the second module of its Tiangong space station on Sunday (July 24) from the Wenchang Space Center in southern China.

The Wentian module will be launched aboard a huge Long March 5B rocket and should link up with the main module of China’s Tianhe space station in a few hours, expanding the country’s crewed space research center.

China does not usually announce launch times in advance and does not broadcast most of its launches live. Space flight now (will open in a new tab) expects the missile to be launched around 2:15 AM EDT (06:15 GMT or 14:15 local time) based on airspace warnings. Chinese state media will likely release an update on the mission later in the day.

There are currently three Shenzhou-14 taikonauts in Tiangong, who have been aboard the Tianhe module for about six weeks since launch on June 5.

Related: Latest news about China’s space program

Wentian is both a science module and a place to expand living space aboard a small space station. It includes experimental cabinets for performing scientific work, as well as additional sleeping quarters for astronauts to allow crew transfer. Once the module is ready, Tiangong will be able to temporarily accommodate up to six crew members.

The 174-foot (53-metre) Long March 5B is China’s heavy-lift rocket variant designed to launch Chinese space station modules, each weighing around 48,500 pounds (22,000 kg).

The first mega-rocket launch in 2020 sent a prototype of a new-generation manned spacecraft into low Earth orbit, and the second in 2021 launched Tianhe. In both cases, the rocket’s massive main stages made loud, uncontrolled re-entries, causing concern for space debris trackers, although both deorbited without incident.

Wentian’s post-launch mission will be to rendezvous with Tianhe, which is currently 236 miles (381 km) above Earth, and dock at Tianhe’s forward docking port. It will then be moved to the side or side port using the module’s 33 feet (10 meters) robotic arm.

China plans to launch another module later this year to put more experiments into orbit. The module, called Mengtian, is scheduled to launch in October. Wentian and Mengtian will jointly build a T-shaped space station that China plans to operate for at least ten years.

The country tends to operate independently in space, according to the agency, and NASA is not allowed to “engage in any bilateral activity with China or Chinese companies.” (will open in a new tab). Agency officials have indeed expressed extreme dissatisfaction with China’s uncontrolled fall of the Long March 5B main stage in 2021, and the Biden administration has criticized China’s space activities several times recently.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or facebook (will open in a new tab).

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