Final module docks at China’s ‘heavenly palace’ space station
The Mengtian module, along with a core unit and lab module, make up the Tiangong space station.
The final module required for the completion of China’s Tiangong space station has successfully docked with the core structure, state media say, a key step in Beijing’s ambitious plans for space exploration.
China’s third and final module docked with its permanent space station early on Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV said, citing the China Manned Space Agency.
The module – named Mengtian, which means “heavenly dream” – was launched on Monday on a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang launch centre on China’s tropical island of Hainan, CCTV reported.
It reached the Tiangong space station at 4:27am Beijing time on Tuesday (20:27GMT on Monday). The entire process of launch and docking with the space station took about 13 hours and advances more than a decade-long effort by China to maintain a constant crewed presence in orbit.
Beijing’s completion of the station would signal “China is now an equal player in space with the United States, Russia and Europe”, independent Chinese space analyst Chen Lan told Agence France-Presse.
“It is always good to see new players coming,” he said. “… Competition will always speed up innovation.”
According to China’s Xinhua news agency, the Mengtian module, together with the Tianhe core module and the Wentian lab module, will form the space station’s basic T-shape configuration. Together, they are known as Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”.
The Mengtian lab module on Tuesday successfully docked with China's Tiangong space station combination. It will enable more experiments, especially those that only can be done in a microgravity environment. #GLOBALink pic.twitter.com/t3UQvyuSxO
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) November 1, 2022
The Tiangong station is one of the crown jewels in Beijing’s well-funded space programme, which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and made the country only the third to put humans into orbit.
China has been racing to catch up with the spacefaring powers, the United States and Russia. It has been excluded from the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011 when Washington banned NASA from engaging with Beijing.
Once completed, the Tiangong space station is expected to have a mass of 90 tonnes, about a quarter of the ISS, or similar in size to the Soviet-built Mir station, which orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.
The China Manned Space Agency said Tiangong is populated by three crew members, or taikonauts, including one woman.
Chen Dong, Cai Xuzhe and Liu Yang arrived in early June for a six-month stay on board. They will complete the station’s assembly, conduct spacewalks and carry out additional experiments.
Following Mengtian’s arrival, an uncrewed Tianzhou cargo craft is due to dock with the station next month. Another crewed mission is scheduled for December, at which time crews may overlap because Tiangong has sufficient room to accommodate six people.
Next year, Beijing plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope with a field of view 350 times that of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.