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China begins building its own space station with launch of control module

China launched the first module of a planned space station on Wednesday. The Chinese space agency hopes to complete the sophisticated research lab in 2022, securing its status as a space superpower with long-duration orbital expeditions by three-person crews.

While smaller than the sprawling International Space Station, built by the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada, the Chinese Space Station, or CSS, will focus on the same objectives, including microgravity research, Earth observation and technology development.

At least 10 more launches are planned over the next two years to put at least two additional 20-ton research modules in orbit, to deliver supplies and, as early as this summer, astronaut crews, eventually giving the Chinese an operational space station of their own with a mass of more than 60 tons.

A Long March-5B rocket blasts off from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan Wednesday (U.S. time), boosting the first module of a planned Chinese space station into orbit. CTGN

After years of planning, the program got off the ground at 11:22 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday (11:22 a.m. Thursday local time) when a powerful Long March-5B rocket carrying the 60-foot-long Tianhe — Heavenly Harmony" — core module roared to life and blasted off from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan.

Putting on a dramatic show, the 176-foot-tall rocket arced smoothly away to the southeast over the South China Sea atop 2.4 million pounds of thrust.

Discarding four spent strap-on boosters along the way, the rocket reached orbit about eight minutes after takeoff. The Tianhe module was released to fly on its own a few minutes later and an hour after that, the module's two solar panels deployed as planned.

Tianhe will be the centerpiece of the Chinese space station, providing crew quarters, life support systems, communications, spacecraft controls, an airlock and multiple docking ports.

If all goes well, two more modules will be launched next year, docking with the core module to form a T-shaped structure. Electrical power will be generated by large solar arrays and two of the modules will be equipped with small robotic arms.

For comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) has a mass of more than 420 tons and features five pressurized modules from Russia, four modules, two compartments and a large airlock supplied by NASA, a Japanese laboratory and another provided by Europe.

An artist's impression of China's planned space station. The lab will support three astronauts at a time for extended stays in space. UN Office for Outer Space Affairs / China Manned Space Engineering Office

Construction on the ISS began in 1998 and the lab has been continuously staffed by rotating cosmonaut-astronaut crews since 2000.

"We did not intend to compete with the ISS in terms of scale," Gu Yidong, chief scientist of the China Manned Space program, was quoted as saying by Scientific American. Rather, the three-module station is "based on China's needs for scientific experiments." The station, he added, is "what we consider a reasonable size for the sake of cost-effectiveness."

The Chinese Space Station follows the development of Shenzhou crew capsules and orbital tests of two prototype Tiangong space station modules, launched in 2011 and 2016 respectively.

Six piloted flights of Shenzhou spacecraft have been carried out to date, the first in 2003 and the most recent in 2016. Two three-person crews, including two women, docked at Tiangong-1 while the most recent two-man crew docked at Tiangong-2 in 2016 as part of a 32-day mission.

The next piloted Shenzhou flight, and the first expected to dock with the Tianhe module launched on Wednesday, reportedly could fly as early as June, although Chinese space officials have not yet identified the crew or specified a launch date. 

While 11 flights are planned to build out the Chinese Space Station, additional flights could be added later.

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