HONG KONG — The Heavenly Palace, the first module in China’s permanent space station, will be launched next year, a senior aerospace official confirmed Wednesday.
The official, Qi Faren, said the craft, an orbiting laboratory known in Mandarin as Tiangong-1, would initially serve as a docking station for other spacecraft. His remarks were carried by Xinhua, the official news agency.
A model of Tiangong-1 was publicly unveiled during New Year celebrations last year. The 8.5-ton laboratory is expected to be 30 feet long, with a crew of three taikonauts, the Chinese term for astronauts.
The China National Space Administration said it plans three docking missions with the lab next year.
The space agency’s long-range plans include a 20-ton permanent space station that will incorporate Tiangong-1, as well as a separate lunar mission by 2022.
China successfully launched its first satellite in April 1970, a craft called Dong Fang Hong-1, or The East Is Red, which was sent into orbit by a Long March-1 rocket. China’s first manned spacecraft went aloft in October 2003 and made 14 orbits of the Earth. The country’s first spacewalk took place 18 months ago.
Aerospace experts and military officials say the Chinese military space program has made major advancements in recent years, notably when it tested an antisatellite system in 2007, using a ballistic missile to shoot down one of its own weather satellites 540 miles up.
Charles P. Vick, a senior analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, said in a white paper that China’s “space station programs have clearly won out in government planning priorities over the lunar aspirations.”
China has long insisted that its intentions in space are peaceful, although the head of the Chinese Air Force, Gen. Xu Qiliang, appeared to have gone somewhat off-message when he said in November that international “military competition has shifted towards space.”
“Such a shift is a major trend now, and such expansion is a historical inevitability,” he said, in remarks quoted by state-run media. “To some extent, if you control space you can also control the land and the sea, and you will be in an advantageous position.”
Meanwhile, American military planners have expressed concerns and uncertainty about China’s intentions.
“Where they’re heading I think is one of those things that a lot of people would like to understand better, what their goals and objectives are,” said Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the head of United States Strategic Command, following General Xu’s remarks. “But they certainly are on a fast track to improve their capabilities.
“Clearly, I think what we’ve all come to understand is that space is a contested domain. It used to be looked at like a sanctuary. And clearly that’s not the case today.”
China to Launch Space Station Module - NYTimes.com