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China launches 1st space station module

By Associated Press
Associated Press / September 30, 2011

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BEIJING - China launched an experimental module to lay the groundwork for a future space station yesterday, underscoring its ambitions to become a major space power over the coming decade.

The Tiangong-1 module was shot into space from the Jiuquan launch center on the edge of the Gobi Desert aboard a Long March 2FT1 rocket.

The 8.5-ton module, roughly the size of a box car, will move into an orbit 217 miles above the Earth and conduct surveys of Chinese farmland using special cameras. It will also carry out experiments involving growing crystals in zero gravity.

China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to practice remote-controlled docking maneuvers with the module within the next few weeks.

Two more missions, at least one of them manned, are to meet up with it next year for further practice, with astronauts staying for up to one month.

The module, whose name translates as “Heavenly Palace-1,’’ is to stay aloft for two years, after which two other experimental modules are to be launched for additional tests. The three sections will be joined to create the full space station between 2020 and 2022.

“This is a significant test,’’ Lu Jinrong, the launch center’s chief engineer, told the official Xinhua News Agency. “We’ve never done such a thing before.’’

The space station, which is yet to be formally named, is the most ambitious project in China’s exploration of space, which also calls for landing on the moon, possibly with astronauts.

In terms of technology, the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the United States was in the 1960s, during the Gemini program. While China is planning fewer launches than the United States carried out, the Chinese program progresses farther than the United States did with each launch it undertakes, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.

“China has the advantage, 40-plus years later, of not having to start at the bottom of the learning curve on its human spaceflight program,’’ Johnson-Freese said.

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