China launches the Wentian lab module for its 'Heavenly Palace' space station. Photo: Global Times

China’s space laboratory module has successfully been launched into orbit and has docked on the under-construction Tiangong space station, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said on Monday.

The 23-metric-ton space lab, known as the Wentian module, was launched from Hainan Island at 2:22 pm local time on Sunday and has since attached to the station’s Tianhe core module, the first station module launched on April 29 last year.

A second laboratory module, known as Mengtian, is scheduled to be launched in October this year. Mengtian and Wentian will then form a T-shaped structure with Tianhe in the center to complete the first phase of the Tiangong space station, known in Chinese as “Heavenly Palace.”

Chinese media said Wentian’s successful docking was an important milestone for China’s space station project while trumpeting that China is leaving the United States in its space race wake. The state reports said China’s only major competitor in space station technology now is American entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX project.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in April that China welcomed cooperation with European countries and Russia but did not mention the United States.

The Wentian module was launched from Hainan Island on July 24, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

The USSR was the world’s leader in space technology last century. In 1957, the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, known as Sputnik-1, into orbit. It was followed by the United States’ Echo 1 in 1960, France’s Astérix in 1965 and Japan’s Ohsumi in 1970. China launched its Dong Fang Hong 1 in 1970.

In the early 1970s, the USSR launched a series of modules for its space station program called Salyut. Because Sino-Russia relations soured in 1969, discussions on space technology cooperation between the two countries were suspended until Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985.

In 1986, the USSR launched its third-generation space station, called Mir, into orbit. But five years later, the USSR collapsed and Russia inherited most of its space projects. In 1998, space agencies of the US, Japan, Europe and Canada jointly launched the International Space Station (ISS).

In 1999, China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), a space agency of the People’s Republic of China, started a space program called Project 921, or the China Manned Space Program. In 2001, China expressed its interest to participate in the ISS project but was rejected by the US on the grounds of China’s insufficient funding and low technology.

The CMSA then launched on a path of self-development. It sent Yang Liwei, a military pilot, into space in a mission named Shenzhou 5 in 2003 and claimed other achievements in the following years. 

In 2011, the US Congress passed the Wolf Amendment to prohibit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from cooperating with the Chinese government or its affiliated organizations. In the same year, NASA and its partners finished the assembly of the ISS.

But Russia said in late April this year that it plans to pull out of the ISS in response to the collapse of relations with the West over its Ukraine invasion. 

Dmitry Rogozin, director-general of the federal Roscosmos space agency, told media that Russia would give one-year notice before its withdrawal. Currently, the ISS relies on the electrical power distribution, data processing systems, flight control systems and propulsion systems of Russia’s Zvezda module.

Chinese media reports said in May that Russia’s withdrawal would seriously disrupt the ISS’ operations while China’s Tiangong space station would be an alternative for Russian modules in the future.

They said the space technologies of China and Russia were highly compatible with each other as China’s Tiangong space station resembled Russia’s Mir space station while China’s Shenzhou spacecraft were similar to Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

Wentian is a laboratory module of China’s Tiangong space station. Photo: Screenshot / CCTV footage

On Sunday, China successfully launched Wentian, which would function both as a backup of the core module and as a scientific experiment platform.

The Wentian module is 17.9 meters long with a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters. It consists of a work cabin, an airlock cabin and a resource cabin.

It has a takeoff mass of 23 tonnes and is the heaviest single-cabin active spacecraft in orbit in the world, said Liu Gang, deputy chief designer of the China manned space program’s space station system with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

On June 5, three Shenzhou-14 astronauts were sent into orbit and entered the Tianhe core module to begin their six-month space mission. They entered Wentian after the docking on Monday. The Tiangong space station reportedly plans to host 1,000 scientific experiments. 

“Since the inception and implementation of the China manned space program, China has followed the principles of peaceful use, equality, mutual benefit and common development,” Chinse Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a regular media briefing on April 18 this year. 

China had already signed cooperation agreements and carried out cooperation projects in various forms and with fruitful outcomes with France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Pakistan and many other space agencies or organizations including the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the European Space Agency, Wang said.

“We stand ready to conduct more international cooperation and exchanges with countries and regions committed to the peaceful use of outer space,” he added. “Foreign astronauts are welcome to visit the China Space Station and join Chinese astronauts in making more positive contributions to exploring the universe and building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Graphic: Global Times

On April 26, NASA administrator Bill Nelson criticized China for failing to display transparency and willingness to cooperate with the US and other countries in space.

In May, NASA criticized China for allowing debris from its Long March 5B space rocket to free fall on Earth. Fortunately, the debris landed in the Indian Ocean and did not hit any populated areas.

In June last year, China announced scientists from 17 countries including Russia, Japan and India would be allowed to enter its Tiangong space station. The US was not included in the list. Chinese news websites have published reams of articles and several videos claiming that the US will be left behind in the global space technology competition.

A Guancha article said that the space programs unveiled by the US in recent years had poor efficiency and as such China’s only competitor is Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Starlink programs. It said China would win if it could make good use of its economies of scale advantage.

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3