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China unveils rival to International Space Station

Sydney Morning Herald | April 27, 2011
Less than a decade ago, it fired its first human being into orbit. Now, Beijing is working on a multi-capsule outpost in space. But what is the political message of the Tiangong 'heavenly palace'?

 

A model of China's Tiangong-1 space station.

A model of China's Tiangong-1 space station.

China has laid out plans for its future in space, unveiling details of an ambitious new space station to be built in orbit within a decade.

The project, which one Nasa adviser describes as a "potent political symbol", is the latest phase in China's rapidly developing space programme. It is less than a decade since China put a human into orbit for the first time, and three years since its first spacewalk.

The space station will weigh around 60 tonnes and consist of a core module with two laboratory units for experiments, according to the state news agency, Xinhua.

Officials have asked the public to suggest names and symbols for the unit and for a cargo spacecraft that will serve it.

Professor Jiang Guohua, from the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, said the facility would be designed to last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy.

The project heralds a shift in the balance of power among spacefaring nations. In June, the US space agency, Nasa, will mothball its whole fleet of space shuttles, in a move that will leave only the Russians capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The $US100bn outpost is itself due to fly only until 2020, but may be granted a reprieve until 2028.

Bernardo Patti, head of the space station programme at the European Space Agency (Esa), said: "China is a big country. It is a powerful country, and they are getting richer and richer. They want to establish themselves as key players in the international arena.

"They have decided politically that they want to be autonomous, and that is their call. They must have had some political evaluation that suggests this option is better than the others, and I would think autonomy is the key word."

He added that China's plans would be "food for thought" for policymakers elsewhere. Esa and other nations are already discussing a next-generation space station that would operate as a base from which to explore space beyond low-Earth orbit; future missions could return astronauts to the moon, land them on asteroids, or venture further afield to Mars.

"Another country trying to build its own infrastructure in space is competition, and competition always pushes you to be better," Patti said.

The central module of the Chinese space station will be 18.1 metres long, with a maximum diameter of 4.2 metres and a launch weight of 20 to 22 tonnes. The laboratory modules will be shorter, at 14.4 metres, but will have the same diameter and launch weight.

 

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