China launches first of two lab modules to join space station

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China, Space Station; China female spacewalk
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping outside the Chinese space station's Tianhe core module

China has launched one of two laboratory modules to complete its permanent orbiting space station.

The Wentian was launched from Hainan Island on Sunday, watched by a large crowd of amateur photographers and space enthusiasts.

Designed for science and biology experiments, the module lifted off on the Long March 5B remote 3 rocket, and spent roughly eight minutes in flight before it entered orbit, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

A second lab module, called the Mengtian, is due to be launched in October, and both will join the Tiangong space station.

Three astronauts are already living in the core module and will oversee the arrival and docking of the lab.

The launch is the third since the Chinese space station entered its construction phase. It was preceded by the Tianzhou-class cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou-14 crewed spacecraft.

China’s space programme is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, prompting the US to exclude it from the International Space Station.

As a result, China largely had to work on its own in its Tiangong space station programme, building and then abandoning two experimental stations before embarking on the latest version.

The 23-ton lab module is heavier than any other single-module spacecraft that is currently in space, according to the state-owned Global Times.

China’s space programme launched its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, making it only the third country to do so on its own after the former Soviet Union and the US.

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