China has launched the first module of a new permanent, orbiting space station.
The Tianhe module, which contains living quarters for crew members, was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on a Long March-5B rocket.
The only space station currently in orbit is the International Space Station (ISS), which is a collaboration between Russia, the US, Canada, Europe and Japan. China is blocked from participating in it.
China hopes to have its own space station, Tiangong, operational by 2022. The ISS is due to be retired after 2024, which could potentially leave Tiangong as the only space station in Earth’s orbit.
China was a late starter in space exploration. In 2003 it sent its first astronaut into orbit, making it the third country to do so, after the Soviet Union and the US.
China has sent two previous space stations into orbit. The Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 were trial stations, simple modules that allowed only relatively short stays by astronauts.
The new, 66-tonne, multi-module Tiangong station is set to be operational for at least 10 years.
Tianhe will be the core component. It is 16.6m long and 4.2m wide. It will provide power and propulsion and contains the life support technologies and living quarters required by visiting astronauts.
Beijing plans to have at least 10 more similar launches, carrying all the additional equipment into orbit, before the completion of the station next year. It will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450km.
Having been frozen out of the International Space Station programme by the US, Beijing just decided to build its own.
When the Tiangong station is up and running – possibly as early as next year – though it will be only a quarter of the size of the international facility, no other country will have its own orbiting space lab.
China has in recent years made no secret of its space ambitions. There is talk of missions to Mars and a lunar station with Russia, says the BBC.
Beijing has poured significant funding into its space efforts, and in 2019 China became the first country to send an uncrewed rover to the far side of the Moon.
President Xi Jinping has thrown his support behind the country’s space ambitions, and Chinese state media regularly portray the “space dream” as one step on the path to “national rejuvenation”.