President Xi Jinping urged scientists to further China’s progress in space, as the country moved a step closer to launching the first module of its space station.
The remarks came as a heavy-lift rocket was moved into place on Monday in preparation for the launch in the coming months.
The China Manned Space Engineering Office said the Long March 5B (CZ-5B) rocket had been transported to the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the southern island of Hainan.
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It will now be loaded with the core module of the permanent space station and tests will be carried out before it is sent into low-Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 400km, for the first phase of construction.
At the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi urged members of the Chang’e 5 lunar mission team to further the country’s progress in space.
“You should start a new journey of interstellar exploration, step by step, continue to promote the innovative development of China’s space industry, and make new and greater contributions to the peaceful use of space for mankind,” he said, according to state news agency Xinhua.
The president was also shown lunar rock samples collected by the Chang’e 5 spacecraft last year.
China has stepped up its space programme in recent years, including with its first mission to Mars that aims to land a probe on the red planet in May, and a plan to land astronauts on the moon by 2030.
Last year it also sent the final satellite of its BeiDou system into orbit, completing the global navigation network that took over two decades to build.
This year there are more than 40 rocket launches planned. Its new orbital space station, the Tiangong or “celestial palace” is expected to take two years to construct and will require 11 launches: the core module, two laboratories, four cargo spacecraft, and four manned spacecraft.
The core module, named Tianhe, is expected to be launched sometime in spring and will be followed by the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer with the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said crew members were currently undergoing training ahead of the mission.
The Tianhe is the largest spacecraft developed in China at 16.6 metres long, 4.2 metres wide, and with a launch weight of 22.5 tonnes.
It will be the space station’s control centre and the main living area for astronauts, and is also equipped with devices for scientific experiments and research.
Up to three astronauts will be able to live and work in the space station long term they will have a total of about 50 cubic metres of living space. They will have more than double that area for their activities once the two laboratories are in place.
The project has fallen behind schedule because of a delay in the development of the CZ-5 series rocket, China’s only heavy-lift rocket powerful enough to launch modules of the size and weight needed for the space station. The CZ-5B carried out its first test mission a year later than planned, in May 2020.
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