May 2021: China will launch the Tianzhou-2, which will rendezvous Tianhe. The astronauts will live on the station for six months at a time.
June 16, 2012: The Shenzhou-9 carrying three astronauts was launched.
Beijing does not have specific plans to use its space station for worldwide cooperation like the ISS, but Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration, although the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.
Tianhe will have a docking port and will also be able to connect with a powerful Chinese space satellite. Theoretically, it could be expanded with more modules.
If the ISS were to cease operating in the coming years - and secure its operation until 2024 - China would likely be the only country with a space station.
Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.
The Tianhe space station core module separated from the first stage after 490 seconds of flight.
China began preparations for a space station in the early 1990s as its space program gained momentum. While Russia and the United States are now discussing what to do with the International Space Station after 2024, the two countries are contemplating their new settlement bases in space.
China launched the Tiangong-1 lab, its first prototype module meant to lay the groundwork for the permanent station, in September 2011. The first burned up after contact was lost and its orbit decayed, while the second was successfully taken out of orbit in 2018. For 29 days. In July 2019, China allowed Tiangong 2 to burn in a controlled manner after almost three years.
While 11 flights are planned to build out the Chinese Space Station, additional flights could be added later.
Thursday's launch comes as China is also forging ahead with crewless missions, particularly in lunar exploration. It has been gathering data in its orbit on Mars since February and will explore the Red Planet's surface. Thief Zhurong will search for evidence of life.
The Chinese program proceeded steadily and cautiously according to a carefully designed schedule, largely avoiding the failures seen in the efforts of the United States and Russian Federation when they found themselves in fierce competition during the early days of spaceflight.
China's program has advanced in a steady, cautious manner, largely avoiding the failures seen in the US and Russian efforts with their astronaut programs, moon and Mars missions when they were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of space flight. No timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.
China has proceeded in a more measured, cautious manner than the United States and Soviet Union during the height of the Space Race.
One recent setback for China came when a Long March 5 rocket failed in 2017, during development of the Long March 5B variant that will be used to put the Tianhe module into orbit.