In its longest manned space mission to date and first in nearly five years, China sent three astronauts into orbit to begin occupation of its new space station.
Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo will spend three months aboard the Tianhe module some 380km (236 miles) above the Earth.
The crew successfully docked with the space station just over seven hours after the Shenzhou-12 capsule took off atop Long March 2F rocket on June 17 at 9.22 am Beijing time (1.22 am GMT).
The primary objective for Commander Haisheng and his team is to put the 22.5-tonne Tianhe module into service. "We need to set up our new home in space and test a series of new technologies. So, the mission is tough and challenging… with the three of us working closely together, doing thorough and accurate operations, we can overcome our challenges…," BBC quoted him as saying before the launch.
It is the first and core component of an around 70-tonne orbiting outpost, comprising living quarters, science labs and even a Hubble-class telescope.
China's Space Ambitions
China has poured significant funding into its space efforts in recent years. In the past six months, the country has brought back rock and soil samples from the moon to Earth, and landed a six-wheeled robot on Mars. China achieved another milestone in 2019 by sending an unmanned rover to the far side of the moon, the first country to do so.
As far as the space station is concerned, it had to go alone because it had been excluded from the International Space Station project, according to the BBC report.
The United States, which leads the project partnership with Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, will not cooperate with China.
China is keen on allowing foreign involvement on its station. There is already an Indian-developed telescopic spectrograph on the outer side of the station to study ultraviolet emissions coming from deep space, for example from exploded stars.
Ji Qiming of China's human spaceflight agency told BBC that such cooperation is always welcome. "It is believed that, in the near future, after the completion of the Chinese space station, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts fly and work together," said Ji, who is an assistant director at the space agency.
Also, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has joined hands with its Russian counterpart in releasing the International Lunar Research Station Roadmap and Guide for Partnership, inviting all interested countries and organisations to join the project, Global Times reported.
Who Else Owns a Space Station?
At present, there is just one International Space Station (ISS), a multi-nation project, whose main construction was completed between 1998 and 2011, even as it continually evolves to include new missions and experiments, according to Space.com.
The ISS includes contributions from 15 nations, with the United States’ NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA) being the major partners who contribute most of the funding. The other partners are Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and Canadian Space Agency.
Among the top participating countries to visit the station are the United States and Russia.
Currently, the space station will be operated at least through 2024, with the partners discussing a possible extension until 2028, according to a Space.com report.
Crews aboard the ISS are assisted by mission control centres in Houston (US) and Moscow (Russia), and a payload control centre in Huntsville, Alabama (US).
The space station circles the Earth every 90 minutes at a speed of 28,000 km/h. But indicating that they could pull out of the ISS in 2025, the Russian space agency in April announced that work has begun on a space station of its own.
Russia's Roscosmos space agency said its agreement with international partners would run out in 2024.
According to another BBC report, a decision on the ISS' future will then be made on the condition of its technical modules and Russia's plans for its own orbital service station.
Where Does India Stand?
There are plans, but a decision be made only after India’s first manned mission, Gaganyaan, in 2022. This was announced by then Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) K. Sivan in 2019.
"We want to have a separate space station. We will launch a small module for microgravity experiments...," he had said.
Dr Sivan had said the proposed space station would weigh 20 tonnes and astronauts would be able to stay at the facility for 15-20 days. The station would be placed in an orbit 400 km above earth. "The time frame for the launch is five-seven years after Gaganyaan," he had said.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)