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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'?

Pang Zhihao, a researcher and deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Space International, told Xinhua: "The 60-tonne space station is rather small compared with the International Space Station [419 tonnes] and Russia's Mir space station [137 tonnes], which served between 1996 and 2001.

"But it is the world's third multi-module space station, which usually demands much more complicated technology than a single-module space lab."

China is also developing a cargo spaceship, which will weigh less than 13 tonnes and have a diameter of no more than 3.35 metres, to transport supplies and equipment to the space station.

John Logsdon, a Nasa adviser and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said China's plans would give it homegrown expertise in human space flight. "China wants to say: 'We can do everything in space that other major countries can do,"' he said. "A significant, and probably visible, orbital outpost transiting over most of the world would be a potent political symbol."

China often chooses poetic names for its space projects, such as Chang'e - after the moon goddess - for its lunar probes; its rocket series, however, is named Long March, in tribute to communist history. The space station project is currently referred to as Tiangong, or "heavenly palace".

But Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told a news conference: "Considering past achievements and the bright future, we feel the manned space programme should have a more vivid symbol, and that the future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name.

"We now feel that the public should be involved in the names and symbols, as this major project will enhance national prestige and strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride."

China plans to launch the Tiangong-1 module later this year, to help master docking technologies. An unpiloted spacecraft will attempt to dock with the module; two piloted spacecraft will then follow suit.

Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the programme, said researchers were developing technology to ensure astronauts could remain in space for at least 20 days and to ensure supplies could be delivered safely.

According to Space.com, Jiang, the chief engineer at the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, in Beijing, told an international conference last month: "The rendezvous and docking project is smoothly going through technical preparations and testing."

The Tiangong-2 should support three astronauts for around 20 days, while the Tiangong-3, which is due for launch in 2015, should support them for twice as long. The laboratories would allow China to develop the technology it needs to build the space station.

 

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