Early on Thursday, a Long March 5B rocket – currently the most powerful of China’s space launch vehicles – blasted off from Wenchang, carrying the first major component of an ambitious new modular space station.
The station module, dubbed Tianhe (Harmony of the Heavens), marks the next big step in China’s human spaceflight program in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Barred from participating in the International Space Station (ISS) by US law, which forbids cooperation in space between the two countries, China has been developing its own LEO capabilities for over a decade now.
It launched its first spacefarers (called taikonauts) in 2003 and 2005 under the Shenzhou program, with a vehicle based on the Russian Soyuz design. A technology sharing agreement with Russia also enabled China to launch their first space station in 2011: a small, single-module space base known as Tiangong-1. A similar platform, Tiangong-2, followed in 2016. Both have since deorbited.
Tianhe is a big upgrade from these small predecessors. The core module houses life support for three taikonauts, as well as power and propulsion systems. A series of docking ports will enable crewed spacecraft to visit the station, but also make room for future modules (two other ...