China launched the first module of its space station today at around 13:15 GMT. The 20ish-ton Tiangong-1 module was carried into low-earth orbit by a Long March 2F rocket. As the BBC reports, the Tiangong-1 is a 10.5 m cylindrical module with a few solar panels and communications equipment.
For the time being, the module orbits alone and unmanned, but in a few weeks time, China will launch an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft (the Chinese equivalent of a Soyuz capsule) to dock with it. Two manned missions will follow in early 2012, and over the next three years test modules for laboratories will also be launched and tested. Further down the line, China will launch modules that will eventually be assembled into the station.
Even when completed towards the end of the decade, China’s station will largely be a throwback to the days of Mir, the creaky, fire-prone Russian space station that de-orbited in 2001. Nevertheless, it is the latest milestone in China’s rapidly developing space programme, which only delivered its first yuhangyuans (Chinese astronauts) to orbit in late 2003.
The latest advance comes just months after the US retired its space shuttle after three decades of service. That point wasn’t lost on China’s Xinhua news agency: it says that Tiangong-1 is “the latest showcase of the nation’s growing prowess in space, and comes while budget restraints and economic tailspin have held back the once dominant U.S. space missions.”