The 8.5-ton 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 before the actual station is launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.
“This is a significant test. We’ve never done such a thing before,” Lu Jinrong, the launch centre’s chief engineer, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
China has applied repeatedly to join the ISS, but was rebuffed largely on objections from the U.S., prompting it to adopt a go-it-alone strategy.
Although experts see no explicit military function for the Chinese space station, the country’s other space based military programs, including the destruction of a non-operational Chinese satellite with a rocket in 2007, have caused alarm overseas.
In terms of technology, the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the U.S. was in the 1960s during the Gemini program. While it is planning fewer launches than the U.S. carried out, the Chinese program progresses farther than the U.S. did with each launch it undertakes, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. 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.