China launches its first Tiangong space station module

China's ambition to have its own orbiting space station is one step closer to reality, with the first module of the Tiangong space station heading into orbit this week. The first module is called Tianhe, which means "heavenly harmony," and it lifted off at 11:23 AM local time from the Chinese island province of Hainan. The module is quite large, weighing in at 22 tons, and will be the core of the Tiangong "Heavenly Palace" space station where astronauts will spend most of their time.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the successful launch of the core module shows that the construction of China's space station has entered the stage of full implementation. The president also said that the space station has laid a solid foundation for subsequent missions. China plans two additional launches to send cargo and a trio of astronauts to the core module in the coming weeks.

The core module is about the size of a five-story building and can hold up to six astronauts. The space station has the ability to recycle water on board fully. China currently expects to complete its space station next year. When complete, it will have a mass of about 100 tons, and it will be significantly smaller than the ISS at about only 25 percent of its size.

As the ISS ages, some partner countries that help operate and build it are looking to the future with new space stations. China and Russia have signaled their intent to work together on a future space station. Russia announced this week that it intends to leave the ISS project in 2025.

By the end of the decade, it's expected that China's Tiangong space station will be the only space station orbiting in near-earth orbit. China is working with scientists from 16 other countries on the Tiangong space station. The other countries are contributing engineering expertise or planning to send their own astronauts to conduct a range of experiments.