China fired-up about manned space station

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China plans to launch two manned spacecraft next year to dock with its space module, Tiangong-1, which will itself lift off later in 2011, according to a spokesman for the China Manned Space Engineering Office.

The 8.5-ton Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1, is slated to blast off on top of a Long March 2F carrier rocket in the second half of this year, the spokesman said via a press release posted on the office's website late Wednesday.

The space module, which is now undergoing tests, will first be the target of an unmanned docking by the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft, which will be launched after Tiangong-1 later this year, he said.

Xinhua News Agency quoted Liang Xiaohong, Party chief of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, on Thursday as saying that the interval between the two launches will be two months.

The unmanned rendezvous and docking will be the first of its kind attempted by China and involves key technology and skills that will be needed for the construction of a space station, which is something China aims to build by 2020.

China hopes to follow up the launch of its space module and the launch of the unmanned probe and subsequent docking with the launch next year of two manned spacecraft that will also dock with the module.

The Shenzhou IX and Shenzhou X spacecraft will blast off in 2012 for the purpose of completing a manned docking with Tiangong-1, he said.

According to a source with the space program, if the unmanned docking between Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou VIII fails, the following Shenzhou IX mission will be an unmanned one.

The training of the astronauts for next year's manned missions has already started and China's first two female astronauts, who were recruited last year, have participated in the training and will be among candidates considered for the mission, he said.

Qi Faren, a senior space technology expert, told Xinhua that after the docking experiments, a space laboratory, which will likely be named Tiangong-2, will be launched before 2016. It will be used to study key technology involved in a space station, such as the living conditions of astronauts.

The space laboratory's technical plan has been completed and research work is going smoothly, said Qi, who is the former chief designer of the Shenzhou spaceships and a member of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Eventually, China's space station, which is being designed to have a lifespan of around 10 years, will take shape by 2020 and be cared for by two or three on-board astronauts, he said.

China's space station will be open to scientists from foreign countries, according to the Xinhua report.

Research and development on China's new generation of carrier rockets, Long March 5, is also advancing according to plan and, with a maximum low earth-orbit payload capacity of 25 tons and high earth-orbit payload capacity of 14 tons, is expected to catch up with the United States' Delta-4H rockets, said Liang from the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.

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