A model of the Tiangong-1 space station at the Airshow China exhibition. Photograph: Ranwen/Imaginechina

A model of the Tiangong-1 space station at the Airshow China exhibition. Photograph: Ranwen/Imaginechina

Only a decade since China launched its first human being into orbit, and three years since the first space walk performed by China launched astronaut, Beijing has now unveiled to the world its plans of developing its version of the International Space Station by 2020.

China’s space station will be relatively small at size, weighing in at just 60 tones and consisting of three modules, a core one while the other two are projected to be labs for experimental projects.  Professor Jiang Guohua, from the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, said the facility would be designed to last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy.

In its space exploration projects China regularly uses poetic names like Chang’e – after the moon goddess – for its lunar probes, however for its rocket series officials choose to dub it Long March, in tribute to communist history. For the space station, surprisingly, officials have asked the public to suggest names and symbols for the unit and for a cargo spacecraft that will serve it. How exactly this will go through I don’t know, but if it’s genuinely played though is a pretty praiseworthy initiative. Currently, the Chinese space station program is temporarily dubbed Tiangong, or “heavenly palace”.

Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told a news conference: “Considering past achievements and the bright future, we feel the manned space programme should have a more vivid symbol, and that the future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name.

“We now feel that the public should be involved in the names and symbols, as this major project will enhance national prestige and strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride.”

Concerning dimensions, the central module of the Chinese space station will measure 18.1 metres long, with a maximum diameter of 4.2 metres and a launch weight of 20 to 22 tonnes. The laboratory modules will be shorter, at 14.4 metres, but will have the same diameter and launch weight.

The station would symbolize a great deal for China, especially in the political environment in which it has always based itself on its autonomy and the recent shift of space power. The US scrapped its shuttle program, which currently only leaves Russia with the working capability of sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station, worth $100 billion and which itself is granted to orbit only until 2020, with an eventual extension up to 2028.

Bernardo Patti, head of the space station programme at the European Space Agency (Esa), said: “China is a big country. It is a powerful country, and they are getting richer and richer. They want to establish themselves as key players in the international arena.

“They have decided politically that they want to be autonomous, and that is their call. They must have had some political evaluation that suggests this option is better than the others, and I would think autonomy is the key word.”

China Astronaut Training Center presentation depicts China's planned space station. (c) China Astronaut Research and Training Center

China Astronaut Training Center presentation depicts China's planned space station. (c) China Astronaut Research and Training Center

Helping lay down the foundation, China is set to loft the Tiangong-1 module this year as a platform to help master key rendezvous and docking technologies, which will only operate one to two years. The following step is the docking of an unmanned Chinese Shenzhou-8 spacecraft which will first attempt to dock with the platform, to be followed later by two piloted Shezhou missions to further hone rendezvous and docking skills.

Placed into orbit in 2013, the Tiangong-2 will offer three astronauts about 20 days of living conditions. Tiangong-3, to be launched two years later. Combined, the Tiangong will offer three astronauts 40 days worth of living conditions. Lessons learned from the space laboratory stage will lead to a space station phase, with this complex consisting of the Core Cabin Module (CCM), the Laboratory Cabin Module 1 (LCM-1), a Cabin Laboratory Module II (LCM-2), along with a Shenzhou-manned vessel and a Shenzhou cargo craft.

In other related future Chinese space program events, China hopes to make its first moon landing within two years and to put an astronaut on the moon as early as 2025.


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