China has successfully launched the penultimate module for its space station. In late July, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) released a statement to the press confirming one of two laboratory modules entered orbit and is meeting up with the almost-complete Tiangong space station.
The launch comes while the US space agency, NASA, and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, announced a split, with Russia saying it will recall cosmonauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) by 2028.
The Wentian or ‘Quest for the Heavens’ module was jettisoned into orbit by a Chinese-developed Long March 5B rocket, the most powerful rocket available to the CNSA at present.
The liquid-fuel rocket, nicknamed Pang-Wu (Fat Five,) needed every pound of its 1 020 kN (kilonewtons) thrust to deposit the monstrous 23-ton laboratory module into orbit.
According to the Chinese media outlet, Global Times, Wentian is the largest single spacecraft in orbit. About the size of a London bus and twice as heavy, Wentian is equipped with a broad array of scientific instruments, forming one-half the Tiangong space station’s laboratory.
The module’s onboard gear includes a pressurised area where taikonauts can conduct low and zero-gravity experiments that would be otherwise very difficult and expensive to attempt on Earth.
Backup navigation systems, including thrust and control functions for the Tianhe core module and four large storage cabinets, fill up the rest of the Wentian interior.
The craft’s exterior features a pair of robotic arms, one designed for the rendezvous and docking process with Tianhe and the other, a six-metre long manoeuvrable arm tasked with moving equipment and experiments around the station.
CNSA plans to conduct some extra-vehicular research too, including experiments on solar winds and cosmic rays.
Tiangong space station is expected to be complete this year, according to the CNSA. The final module, Mengtian, is scheduled to depart in October. Like its sister module, Mengtian is laden with scientific gear.
The battle for space supremacy is heating up. Last month, NASA released a series of images taken by its super telescope, James Webb. The breath taking shots of galaxies and stars had social media platforms buzzing.
China’s space ambitions have been relentless in the past few years. In 2021 the Chinese space programme conducted 55 successful manned and unmanned launches. Analysts and the CNSA itself predict more of the same this year, estimating at least 60 flights.