China space station programme begins with launch of unmanned lab
China is preparing to take its building boom into space on Thursday night by putting a first research module – the "Heavenly Palace" - into orbit
The unmanned Tiangong-1 laboratory, which will be launched into the skies above the Gobi desert, is a stepping stone towards a bigger, fully-fledged orbiting platform that China expects to be cheaper than the US and European-backed International Space Station.
The 10.5m-long cylinder will ride around 220 miles (350km) into space on board a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre and remain in orbit for two years.
It will be used by Chinese scientists and astronauts to practice the rendezvous and docking techniques needed to construct bigger structures in space. The first trial will come later this year, with the launch of another vessel, Shenzhou 8, which will attempt to link up with the lab.
If this is successful and life-support systems within the module remain stable, manned missions will be attempted next year and yuhangyuan (astronauts) will spend two weeks inside the narrow structure. Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, said these missions may include the country's first female astronauts.
Following China's first manned space flight in 2003, the launch of the Tiangong-1 is the second stage in a 10-year programme to build a manned 60-tonne platform, scheduled to come into operation in 2020.
This may leave China with the largest mannable presence in space. That title currently belongs to the International Space Station, which is supported by the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada. Although much bigger at 400 tonnes, its future is in doubt due to the high cost of ferrying supplies through space and the economic problems faced by its principle funders.
Hopes to draw China into this international programme have so far made little progress due to political differences with the US. When the current commitments expire in 2020, Russian scientists have proposed that it is left to fall into the ocean.
Beijing claims its programme is cheaper. While Russia and the US initially practiced docking by sending up two vessels for each trial, China said it saves money by leaving one in space for an extended time.
"Tiangong-1's cost is similar to that of a spaceship. We only need four launches and can experiment with rendezvous and docking three times," space programme chief designer Zhou Jianping told The China Daily.
"The US is still ahead. They sent a man to the moon 40 years ago," said Fu Song, a professor at the School of Aerospace in Tsinghua University.
"But there is the advantage for latecomers. The cost is less and wrong turns can be avoided. If the Tiangong is successful, it will be a significant symbol for the Chinese space industry."
Though based primarily on Russian technology, Chinese scientists say they have enhanced navigation and other systems. The country also has ambitions for a moon landing and deep-space exploration. The Tiangong-1 will provide useful preparation for both, according to Ping.
Congrats to our Chinese brothers and neighbours