China began building its "Tianjong" space station

Liftoff of the Long March 5B rocket carrying the Tianhe core module for the Chinese Space Station

But its role as the sole venue for a continuous human presence in space, scientific research and a testing ground for future space exploration is coming to a close, potentially signaling an end to an unparalleled era of worldwide cooperation in space.

If so, the launch will be the first of 11 planned missions aimed at completing the space station by the end of 2022.

"The Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony", module blasted into space atop a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan, marking another major advance for the country's space exploration program that has chalked up a series of accomplishments in recent months.

The core module of China's space station on display.

Beijing has poured billions into its military-run space program, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon. It was only the third country to independently do so after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

September 15, 2016: Tiangong-2 was launched.

The International Space Station - a collaboration between the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan - is due to be retired after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.

The country has more than 40 orbital launches planned for this year, according to CAST, reflecting the country's space exploration ambitions at a time when the U.S.is barely increasing funding for the costly National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Russian Federation is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.

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The facility, planned for either the surface or the orbit of the Moon, would house experimental research facilities and would be Beijing's biggest worldwide space cooperation project to date.

It put the first Chinese "taikonaut" in space in 2003 and landed the Chang'e-4 robot on the far side of the Moon in 2019 - a historic first.

China has launched two test units in the past decade in preparation for a permanent installation. The uncrewed Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft is now expected to rendezvous and dock with Tianhe in mid-late May, ahead of the visit of three astronauts aboard Shenzhou-12 in June. It was largely banned from the International Space Station due to USA objections to the secretive nature of the Chinese program and its close military ties.

In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video class from inside the space module to children across the world's most populous country.

In 2016, China launched its second orbital lab, the Tiangong-2.

A screen displays a rendering of the space station at an exhibition at the China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing.

The launch furthers the "three-step" strategy of building up China's manned space programme and marks "an important leading project for constructing a powerful country in science and technology and aerospace", Xi's message said. In December, the Chang'e 5 probe brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time since United States missions in the 1970s. The first, Tiangong-1, which means "Heavenly Palace-1", was abandoned and burned at the uncontrolled loss of the path.

The Tianwen-1 space probe has been orbiting the red planet since February while collecting data.

One recent setback came when a Long March 5 rocket failed in 2017 during development of the Long March 5B variant used to put Tianhe into orbit, but that caused only a brief delay.

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