China has disclosed plans to begin construction of a space station, starting with the launch an unmanned module, called Tiangong-1, next year. Xinhua News reports that several other spacecraft will dock with Tiangong-1 (or the “Heavenly Palace”), to create an orbiting habitat for humans.
The Tiangong-1 module weighs 8.5 tons, and it will launch aboard a modified version of China’s Long March 2F rocket, which has been assembled and is ready for testing. Over the next two years three different Shenzhou spacecraft, each carrying two to three humans, will dock with Tiangong-1, said the report. Chinese crew members will live and conduct zero-gravity experiments inside the combined modules.
Tiangong-1 was originally scheduled to launch by the end of this year, but was delayed for technical reasons. It is part of a larger project, called Project 921, that was started by the Chinese space program in 1992.
The space station plans were first revealed in 2008, when China conducted its third human spaceflight and its first spacewalk. Completion of the space station will be the third and final phase of Project 921, and China says it will be the beginning of international cooperation. The completed station will weight less than 100 tons and will be smaller than the Soviet Mir Space Station.
The Xinhua News report also discusses China’s plans for a rocket-production base in the northern municipality of Tianjin:
With a total investment of 10 billion yuan and covering an area of more than one million square meters, the base would be capable of producing 12 carrier rockets each year once completed, [Liang Xiaohong, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and Party chief of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology] said.
The base will be able to produce two carrier rockets each year after the first stage of construction is completed next year.
Liang said experts are currently developing China’s new generation of carrier rockets, the Long March V, in the Tianjin base, adding that research on the initial model of the large-thrust rocket is already underway.