An early peek at China's space station

China's space station could be operational within ten years. Here's what we know about it.

While China has nominally operated a space program for more than 50 years, it's only in the last decade that the country was independently able to put a human in space. In 2003, the China National Space Administration managed to launch a Shenzhou spacecraft, along with a single crew member, out of the Earth's atmosphere. His successful reentry marked the beginning of the era of the "Taikonaut."

In 2011, the CNSA is looking forward--far forward--to the next step in its still-nascent manned space program. China, its leaders would like you to know, is serious about building a space station.

Today, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) started soliciting names for its space station, in an effort to further popularize its renewed efforts and spending on manned space exploration. (Previously it has been referred to as the Tiangong station.) It's a fun idea, sure. But what about the actual plan? What will this station look like? When will it be ready? How will it be resupplied? Here's what we know so far:

The hardware: To a layperson, mockups of China's space station look a great deal like the International Space Station. It's comprised of multiple narrow sections connected at right angles, with protruding rectangular solar panels. This superficial resemblance is easily explained: a space station is built from many different modules, each completed on the ground and launched separately. In these early renderings, you can see a number of discrete units.

The station's specifications, however, are substantially different from those of the ISS. Here's what we know:

  • The core module (the long center portion) is 18.1 meters long, with a maximum diameter of about 4 meters.
  • The laboratory modules, which stick out from the side of the core module, are each about 14 meters long.
  • The entire assembly will weigh 60 tons.
  • To put these numbers in context, the ISS weighs nearly 420 tons and measures in at over 100 meters in length. China's space station, even compared to the much smaller Mir, will be a bit of a runt.

    The timeframe: Such estimations are virtually guaranteed to change, but here's the official line: The space station is due to be completed by "around 2020," which is when the ISS is tentatively scheduled to end its mission.

    This is a fairly ambitious target, at least when viewed in the context of the leisurely pace at which Western space programs execute projects. But if China is willing to spend enough effort and money on the program, it's not an implausible estimate.

    For reference, in-orbit construction of the ISS looks like it will end up taking just about 15 years. The station was announced in 1993, five years before in-orbit construction started. In-orbit construction on this project is scheduled to start within the year.

    The extras: The two largest parties in the construction of the ISS both had preexisting technology available not just to build the station, but to maintain it, and to shuttle humans back and forth. On this front, China has a lot of work to do. According to Xinhua:

    According to the schedule, a space module Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft will be launched in the latter half of this year in the first unmanned rendezvous and docking mission. Shenzhou IX and Shenzhou X will be launched next year to dock with Tiangong-1. But problems in ensuring long-term missions for astronauts need to be overcome. Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the program, said that developing technology needed to guarantee mid-term missions in space (a stay of at least 20 days), and developing cargo supply technology will be among the tasks to be met during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period.

    The Chinese space program has succeeded multiple times at sending men to space, but has yet to demonstrate the technology necessary to keep them there for long periods of time. Once fully developed, however, these new shuttles could serve at a catalyst for a broader expansion of China's space ambitions. In particular, they could help fulfill one of the country's stated ambitions: to visit the moon.

    Image credit: China Daily

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