China launches the final module of its Tiangong space station to orbit

China is the only country to currently operate a space station on its own.
Chris Young
An illustration of Chinese Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station
An illustration of Chinese Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station


China is one step closer to completing its space station after it launched the third and final module to orbit aboard a Long March 5B rocket, a Bloomberg report explains.

The rocket took off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 3:37 p.m. local time Monday, October 31. The payload it lifted to orbit is the Mengtian laboratory module, which will complete China's orbital station.

China launches final Tiangong space station module

The name of China's final space station module, Mengtian, translates to dreaming of the heavens. The roughly 18-meter-long module will link to the Tianhe core module and the Wentian experiment module to complete China's Tiangong space station.

In 2011, Congress passed a law barring the U.S. from collaborating with China's space industry due to national security concerns. That law effectively banned China from joining the International Space Station (ISS). Ten years later, in April 2021, China started building its space station. It is now also planning a lunar orbital station with Russia to rival NASA's lunar Gateway program.

Tiangong orbits Earth at approximately 400 kilometers (250 miles). Now that the Mengtian laboratory module is in orbit, it will take some time for the station to be finalized, but work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

China is the only country to currently operate a space station on its own. In an October interview with IE, former IE Senior Editor Brad Bergan, who penned a new book this year titled 'Space Race 2.0', highlighted the fact that China may eventually have the only operational space station in orbit — if only for a few short months or years. "Imagining a future where whatever the private-public partnership funded replacement for the ISS will take some time to reach orbit," Bergan said, "there might very well be a time when China has the only operational space station in low Earth orbit."

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The country's space agency has been working hard to catch up with NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. In 2019, it landed a rover on the far side of the moon, and last year it successfully landed another on Mars.

In October, the Chinese state-owned outlet The Global Times explained that the Mengtian module was designed to enable scientific research in microgravity. It will include a robotic arm that can carry scientific payloads through an airlock and onto a platform on the module's exterior. It will also feature experimental cabinets for fluid physics, materials science, combustion science, fundamental physics, and space technology experiments.

China's Long March 5B core stage to perform an uncontrolled reentry

The upcoming finalization of China's space station is an impressive achievement and will undoubtedly be a cause for celebration for the country's space administration. However, Monday's launch may draw worldwide criticism from space experts due to concerns over part of the Long March 5B rocket's uncontrolled reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

In July, China's previous space station module launch led to criticism over a lack of transparency over its booster's re-entries. At the time, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted, "the People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth. All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of potential debris impact risk, especially for heavy-lift vehicles, like the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property."

China has allowed several uncontrolled reentries in the past. Most have fallen harmlessly into the ocean, though in 2020, one damaged private property on the Ivory Coast.

Editor's note 02/11/22: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that China was the first country to operate its own space station. That phrase was corrected. IE regrets this error.

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