China ready for next space leap

 
Long March 2F roll out (AFP) China is taking a stepped approach to the development of its human spaceflight programme

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China is due to launch its first space laboratory, Tiangong-1.

The 10.5m-long, cylindrical module will be unmanned for the time being, but the country's astronauts, or yuhangyuans, are expected to visit it next year.

Tiangong-1 will demonstrate the critical technologies needed by China to build a fully fledged space station - something it has promised to do at the end of the decade.

The space lab is set to ride to orbit atop a Long March 2F rocket.

State media say the lift-off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert is likely to occur between 21:16 and 21:31 local time (13:16-13:31 GMT). Meteorologists report that weather conditions should be good.

The Long March will put Tiangong in a near-circular path around the Earth, just a few hundred km above the surface.

It will operate in an autonomous mode, monitored from the ground. Then, in a few weeks' time, China will launch another unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, and try to link the pair together.

This rendezvous and docking capability is a prerequisite if larger structures are ever to be assembled in orbit.

Commentators say Russian technology, or a close copy of it, will be used to bring the two craft into line.

Assuming the venture goes well, two manned missions (Shenzhou 9 and 10) should follow in 2012. The yuhangyuans - two or three at a time - are expected to live aboard the conjoined vehicles for up to two weeks.

Tiangong graphic
  • Tiangong-1 will launch on the latest version of a Long March 2F rocket
  • The lab will go into a 350km-high orbit and will be unattended initially
  • An unmanned Shenzhou vehicle will later try to dock with Tiangong
  • The orbiting lab will test key technologies such as life-support systems
  • China's stated aim is to build a 60-tonne space station by about 2020

Tiangong means "heavenly palace" in Chinese. The programme is the second step in what Beijing authorities describe as a three-step strategy.

The first step was the development of the Shenzhou capsule system which has so far permitted six nationals to go into orbit since 2003; then the technologies needed for spacewalking and docking, now in progress; and finally construction of the space station.

Animation showing the launch of Tiangong-1 and eventual completion of China's space station

At about 60 tonnes in mass, this future station would be considerably smaller than the 400-tonne international platform operated by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, but its mere presence in the sky would nonetheless represent a remarkable achievement.

Concept drawings describe a core module weighing some 20-22 tonnes, flanked by two slightly smaller laboratory vessels.

Officials say it would be supplied by freighters in exactly the same way that robotic cargo ships keep the International Space Station (ISS) today stocked with fuel, food, water, air, and spare parts.

There has been much talk about China becoming involved in the ISS project itself, and the fact that it has adopted many Russian engineering standards would certainly make it technically possible for Shenzhou vehicles to visit the orbiting complex.

Europe, too, has argued that additional partners could help spread the cost of running what is an extremely expensive endeavour. But political differences between China and the US would appear to make such involvement unlikely in the near-term.

"These are decisions that have to be taken by the whole ISS partnership; everyone has to agree," says Karl Bergquist from the European Space Agency's (Esa) international relations department.

Yang Liwei (AP) Five astronauts, or yuhangyuans, have followed Yang Liwei's historic first flight in 2003

"You also have to see whether it is something which would interest a country like China, given their ambitions in space. They have advanced so far in their plans that they will probably go ahead and develop their own station," he told BBC News.

Thomas Reiter, the director of human spaceflight at Esa, was asked to comment on the status of China's space programme during a seminar this month at the London School of Economics.

"I think the Chinese want to prove to themselves and others that they are on a level," he said. "At that point, it becomes a moment for discussion on greater co-operation. We are certainly drifting towards each other."

The director said he could envisage the day when yuhangyuans made visits to European astronaut training facilities.

Currently, most of Europe's engagement with China falls in the area of space science.

Esa participated in the Double Star mission, a pair of satellites sent into orbit to study the Sun's interaction with the Earth's magnetic field.

There is also co-operative work in Earth observation, assisting the Chinese with the development of applications to interpret satellite data.

In the UK, manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited announced recently that it would be making three high-resolution imaging spacecraft for the purpose of mapping China.

ISS The ISS is very expensive, but all partners would need to agree to China's participation
 

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 89.

    87.eternalstudent
    2 Minutes ago
    They are shooting up the patent rankings. The US explored space without having healthcare. Depends on priorities I guess. The Chinese are no longer dying of hunger

    ----

    I don't know, there's still a huge number of subsistance peasant farmers in China.

    When the crop fails they do still often starve to death.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 88.

    To all those moaning about how much money the UK gives India in aid each year - firstly, it is irrelevant to the article. Secondly, what's wrong in giving India aid, we looted a lot more from their country for some 190 years before 1947.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 87.

    They are shooting up the patent rankings. The US explored space without having healthcare. Depends on priorities I guess. The Chinese are no longer dying of hunger.

    Regarding complaints about India receiving aid from the UK while having a space program. Aid is largely political, India gave aid to a few African nations at the same time. If UK stops aid to India, expect large contracts to vanish.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 86.

    @79 'Megan'. Yes, agree, we need more international collaboration on these new space station projects - which does happen already, but rarely released for public consumption.

    What I like most about your post is "We need to work together here, not get into the ridiculous cold war era of 'willy waving' of a new space race"

    Seriously 'willy waving', globally, continues destruction of our planet.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 85.

    This will rub salt into the wounds of NASA. China have the cash, the political will, and don't have to abide by all the same safety rules the rest of world run by. Space is there's to claim, and looking at the long term resource shortage on earth, I can see why they want in.... What long term resource shortage?? alls we have to do is recycle ans use renewables? Come on England

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 84.

    83.thelevellers
    Just now

    This is very good news.

    With Russia in decline we need another country that can take on the american imperialists.

    _____

    What idiocy!

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 83.

    This is very good news.

    With Russia in decline we need another country that can take on the american imperialists.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 82.

    Weirdness, who would want to leave Earth?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 81.

    This will rub salt into the wounds of NASA. China have the cash, the political will, and don't have to abide by all the same safety rules the rest of world run by. Space is there's to claim, and looking at the long term resource shortage on earth, I can see why they want in....

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 80.

    19.sagat4

    thats because man never went to the moon. If she did why hasn't she ever gone back?"

    ----

    Well.... that's that proven!

    Ignoring that it's the most obvious fact that a hoax isn't even a likely scenario, what on earth would make any sane person believe that?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 79.

    Excellent news - I hope all goes well for this launch. I look forward to more international collaboration between space-faring nations as time goes on. We need to work together here, not get into the ridiculous cold war era 'willy waving' of a new space race.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 78.

    24.harsh vardhan
    @gexkenndy, i dnt think UK give any aid to india , may be loan which india will return and dnt forgot all these wealth was looted from india ,,Good luck to china and next is india s turn
    ---

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2011/feb/14/government-defends-1bn-aid-india

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 77.

    Having just returned from a regular 5 day business trip to Beijing and Xi'an I have absolutely no doubt that China will have a man on the moon in the next 10 years.

    Xi'an is growing at a huge rate and becoining the centre of aerospace and space technology. China are quite simply paying top dollar and buying in the skills and technology they need. Mick B

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 76.

    28.
    Davey K
    "I hear people say "They spend all this money on space, but what about the poor ?", but the money doesn't physically get flown into space and disappear. It goes to the workers who make the parts or supply the services etc..."

    So, what you are saying is that money spent is never wasted, but if it's left in a big piledoing nowt in a vault it is. and I thought I was the only one.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 75.

    We, as a species, have always lived in difficult times.
    The only difference today is we invented technology, now hi-jacked by media barons, that drives bad news down our throats 24/7, for their own ends.

    Ask yourself - am I a product of multi-media millionaires, or do I have a mind of my own?

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 74.

    In these days of soulless accountants at the top, the world of science is no longer about human curiosity as it has to be budgetarily approved by a know-nothing money man.

    Good for China. I hope they discover something utterly fantastic, thus proving what we all know: the bankers and accountants who tell us it's only money that makes the world go round are arrogant, ignorant and short-sighted.

  • Comment number 73.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 72.

    24.harsh vardhan

    '@gexkenndy, i dnt think UK give any aid to india , may be loan which india will return.'

    You are wrong. It is aid. The UK is giving money to India.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 71.

    About time the Americans sorted themselves out and get to Mars. They could and should have been there in 1984, until Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 and Obama all screwed up. No wonder America has no real influence these days.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 70.

    53: "And with China having their own nukes, America wouldn't dream of using their own. China owns you in every way possible."

    Not quite yet, but in another decade China will dominate the Pacific and America's big military will be gone (we're broke).

    More reasons to be friendly and ask China to join the ISS.

    BTW, if you don't think the US would use its nukes, you don't know us very well.

 

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