China launched its third and final module on Monday in its effort to complete its permanent space station as competition with the United States continues to escalate.
Mengtian was launched in the space from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan. This is the station’s second lab module, along with Wentian.
Spectators donned Chinese flags and T-shirts with Chinese characters, while photographers also gathered to document the event.
Mengtian was launched aboard a Long March-5B Y4 carrier rocket and was expected to spend 13 hours in flight before reaching the station, known as Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”. Crew members will be able to conduct experiments in a weightless atmosphere on Mengtian while having access to an airlock and a small robotic arm to facilitate extravehicular payloads.
Tiangong is currently home to three crew members – two male and one female astronauts – according to the China Manned Space Agency. Crew members arrived at the station in June for a six-month venture during which they will complete station assembly, go on spacewalks and conduct other experiments.
Following Mengtian’s arrival, an uncrewed Tianzhou freighter is expected to dock at the station next month, with a crewed mission scheduled shortly thereafter in December. Crews may overlap due to scheduled launches.
Mengtian and Wentian collectively form Tiangong. They are both connected to the central module of Tianhe where the crew currently lives and works.
Wentian is the heaviest single-module spacecraft currently in space, weighing 23 tons. China is planning to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope next year, which will orbit in sequence with Tiangong and occasionally dock for maintenance.
China’s growing space capabilities have become a hot topic as competition with United States continues to grow.
China’s manned space program officially turns three decades old this year. But it really started in 2003, when China became the third country after the United States and Russia to send a human into space using its own resources.
The United States has excluded China from the International Space Station because of the military links.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.