China’s space agency on Sunday launched the the Wentian or “Quest for the Heavens” laboratory module to add to its Tiangong space station.
The second of three modules, Wentian lifted off on the back of China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5B Y3, in one of the final missions needed to complete the orbiting outpost by year’s end.
A live feed on state broadcaster CCTV showed the 23-tonne Wentian rocketing off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.
Space agency staff, seen on the live feed observing the progress of the launch from a control room, cheered and applauded when the Wentian separated from the rocket about 10 minutes after the launch.
The lab module will include a robotic arm, large solar panels and an airlock to Tiangong, creating opportunities for more sophisticated experiments.
China began constructing the space station in April 2021 with the launch of the Tianhe module, the main living quarters, in the first of 11 crewed and uncrewed missions in the undertaking.
Another lab module – Mengtian, or “Dreaming of the Heavens” – is expected to be launched in October and, like Wentian, is to dock with Tianhe, forming a T-shaped structure.
Wentian features an airlock cabin that is to be the main exit-entry point for extravehicular activities when the station is completed.
It will also serve as short-term living quarters for astronauts during crew rotations on the station, designed for long-term accommodation of just three astronauts.
On board the space station are Shenzhou-14 mission commander Chen Dong and team mates Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe. They are slated to return to Earth in December with the arrival of the Shenzhou-15 crew.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell