China’s Tiangong-1 module is loaded on a Long March 2FT1 rocket at the Jiuquan launch centre. Photograph: Petar Kujundzic/Reuters
China has launched an experimental module to lay the groundwork for a future space station, underscoring its ambitions to become a major space power.
Tiangong-1 was shot into space from the Jiuquan launch centre on the edge of the Gobi desert aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket.
After moving it into orbit, China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to practice docking manoeuvres with the module, possibly within the next few weeks. Two more missions, at least one of them manned, are to meet up with it next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.
The 8.5-tonne module, whose name translates as heavenly palace, is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other experimental modules are to be launched for additional tests before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
“This is a significant test. We’ve never done such a thing before,” Lu Jinrong, the launch centre’s chief engineer, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
The space station, which is yet to be formally named, is the most ambitious project in China’s exploration of space, which also calls for a moon landing, possibly with astronauts.
China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit.
However, habitual secrecy and the space programme’s close links with the military have inhibited co-operation with other nations – including with the International Space Station.