With potential retirement looming for the International Space Station, Russia says it plans to launch its own space station by 2030, but China is edging ahead in the space race: The country launched the main part of its new space station on Thursday. The Tianhe—"Heavenly Harmony"—module with living space for crew members was launched Thursday in the first of 11 missions planned before the station is due to become fully operational next year, the AP reports. Two launches in the coming weeks will send cargo and three astronauts to the Taingong station, reports the South China Morning Post.
The completed station is expected to be around a quarter of the size of the ISS. China has been officially banned from the ISS since 2011, when Congress passed a law banning NASA from working with the country's space agency. BBC correspondent Stephen McDonel notes that China's space program has become a "regular feature" in Beijing's propaganda videos. "Having been frozen out of the International Space Station program by the US, Beijing just decided to build its own," he writes. The Chinese station is expected to be in service for at least 10 years, meaning there could be a period toward the end of this decade when it is the only operational space station in orbit. (China and Russia are also planning a moon base.)