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China’s new space station is officially in orbit

Published Apr 29th, 2021 10:10PM EDT
china space station
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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For better or worse, the space race of the 1960s truly defined what nations would be major players in space exploration over the following decades. The United States and Russia have the most accomplishments under their belts when it comes to venturing off of Earth, and the rest of the world has spent a long time trying to catch up. China, in particular, has really ramped up its efforts as of late. The country recently nailed a far-side Moon landing and also a sample return mission from the lunar surface. Now, it’s doing something that only the United States and Russia have done by launching the first piece of what will become the country’s first permanent space station.

The so-called “Heavenly Harmony” module is the first component of the new space station, which will take many months to fully construct as it orbits Earth. A report yesterday suggested that China was poised to launch the module shortly, and it wasted no time in doing so. The module was sent into space using one of China’s Long March rockets and according to state-run media, the mission was a success.

The International Space Station has been occupied for the vast majority of its 22 years in orbit. The ISS has hosted scientists from over a dozen nations, but China has famously been banned from sending any of its astronauts there. The agreement was made early on to ban China from the space station and while Russia and China are much more friendly with one another than they were two decades ago, the United States has refused to reconsider its position that China should not be allowed to send scientists to the spacecraft.

China, meanwhile, has been rapidly expanding its space exploration efforts, sending missions to Mars, the Moon, and now building its own permanent orbiting laboratory around Earth. The country has tested space stations in the past, but those have long since fallen out of orbit and been destroyed. Now, China is looking to construct a much more stable home in orbit, and the launch of the Heavenly Harmony module is the first step toward achieving that goal.

According to reports out of the country, China believes it will take a total of 11 missions to construct and outfit the space station with everything it needs in order to host its initial crew. Unlike the International Space Station which can hold six comfortably and up to eight if needed, China’s space station will initially be capable of supporting up to three astronauts at once. That number could change dramatically in the future if China decides to further build out the station, add new modules, and new living areas.

The Chinese space agency has been moving fast in its aim to catch up to the U.S. and Russia in the new space race, and the new space station is expected to be completed by the end of 2022.