China launched an experimental module yesterday as it works towards developing a space station, underscoring its ambition to become a major space power.
The Tiangong-1 module shot into space from the Jiuquan launch centre near the Gobi Desert aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket.
After moving it into orbit, China plans to launch an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to practise docking manoeuvres with the module, possibly within the next few weeks. Two more missions are to meet up with it next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.
The 8.5-tonne module – its name means Heavenly Palace-1 – is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other modules are to be launched for additional tests before the actual station takes off in three parts from 2020 to 2022.
The station is China's most ambitious project. It launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the US as the only nations to launch humans into orbit. However, secrecy and the space programme's military links have inhibited co-operation with other nations' space projects.