China launches third and final module for Tiangong space station
BEIJING (AFP) - China successfully launched the final module of its Tiangong space station on Monday, state media said, the latest step in Beijing's ambitious space programme.
The space station is one of the crown jewels of Beijing's ambitious space programme, which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon and made China only the third nation to put humans in orbit. The module named Mengtian, or "dreaming of the heavens," was launched on a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang launch centre on China's tropical island Hainan, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Amateur photographers and space enthusiasts watched the launch -- which took place at 3:27 pm (0727 GMT) -- from a nearby beach. The launch was declared a "complete success" by Deng Hongqin, commander of the Wenchang launch site.
"Based on the flight data from the Long March 5B... carrier rocket and the solid calculations of the Beijing Aersospace Flight Control Centre, the Mengtian experimental module of the space station has accurately entered the predetermined orbit and the working conditions are normal," Deng said.
"I now declare this launch a complete success," he added, as mission staff stood up to congratulate each other. Mengtian is the third and final major component of the T-shaped Tiangong space station and carries a number of cutting-edge science equipment into orbit, state news agency Xinhua reported, including "the world's first space-based cold atomic clock system."
"If successful, the cold atomic clocks will form the most precise time and frequency system in space, which should not lose one second in hundreds of millions of years," Zhang Wei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua.
Beijing plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope next year.
China has invested heavily in its space programme as it looks to catch up with major spacefaring powers like the United States and Russia. Previous missions have seen Beijing land a rover on Mars and send probes to the Moon.
China has been excluded from the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with Beijing. Once completed, the Tiangong space station will be constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts, who will conduct scientific experiments and help test new technologies.
Tiangong, which means "heavenly palace", will operate for around a decade and host a variety of experiments in near-zero gravity. It is similar to the Soviet-built Mir station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.