China's Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) module was successfully lofted into orbit by a Long March-2FT1 rocket Thursday evening.
The Tiangong-1 is slated to orbit the Earth for approximately one month until the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft docks. Subsequent flights to Tiangong-1 will include the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10, with at least one classified as a manned mission.
Zhang Shancong, deputy chief designer of the Tiangong-1, told Xinhua that the module is equipped with advanced cameras which will snap hyperspectral images of China's farmlands to detect heavy metal pollution, pesticide residue and plant disease. Scientists on the ground are also planning to conduct experiments on photonic crystals in the low-gravity environment offered by the Tiangong-1.
The 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 measures 10.4 meters in length and 3.35 meters in diameter - providing a total of 15 cubic meters for two to three astronauts. The unmanned module is expected to help Beijing prepare for the eventual construction of a space station, which Chinese officials envision as an "international platform" for research and exploration.
"The Chinese nation has pursued peace since ancient times," said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program.
"[Our] ultimate intention with the space program is to explore space resources and make use of them for mankind's well-being."
Meanwhile, Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said that China is clearly evolving into a global power, with its investments in areas like technology and exploration reflecting a new reality.
"It is a natural result of the growth in political and economic power and is to be expected," Singer added.