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  • BEIJING, AP – China has launched the core module for its first permanent space station that will host astronauts long-term.The Tianhe – or “Heavenly Harmony” – module blasted into space on Thursday atop a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Launch Center on the southern island province of Hainan.

    The launch marked another major advance for the country’s space exploration program that has chalked up a series of accomplishments in recent months.

    The launch begins the first of 11 missions necessary to construct and provision the station and send up a three-person crew by the end of next year.

    The astronauts will live on the station for six months at a time.

    China’s space program has also recently brought back the first new lunar samples in more than 40 years and expects to land a probe and rover on the surface of Mars later next month.