A rocket carrying China’s first space laboratory, Tiangong-1, was launched from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert in the north of the country yesterday. The rocket’s ascent took the lab to an orbit some 350km above the Earth.
The 10.5m-long, cylindrical space lab is presently unmanned for the time being – Chinese astronauts (yuhangyuans) are scheduled to visit it in 2012.
Tiangong means “heavenly palace” in Chineseand the launch is a first step towards China constructing a 60 tonne space station by 2020.
Yang Hong, chief designer of Tiangong-1’s said: “Rendezvous and docking is a sophisticated technology. It’s also essential to building China’s own space station.”
China is expected to launch another unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, in a few weeks’ time and will try to link the pair together as a practice docking exercise in preparation for two manned missions (Shenzhou 9 and 10) in 2012. Two or three yuhangyuans are expected to live aboard the conjoined space vehicles for up to two weeks at a time.
The Tiangong project is STEP 2 of a three-step strategy:
STEP1 was the development of the Shenzhou capsule system enabling, since 2003, six Chinese nationals to go up into orbit – then the technologies needed for spacewalking and docking – now in progress – and the final STEP 3, construction of the space station (concept drawings show a 20-22 tonne core module flanked by two smaller lab vessels).
At approximately 60 tonnes in mass, the future space station would be very much smaller than the 400-tonne International Space Station (ISS) operated by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan.
The station will be supplied with fuel, food, water, air, and spare parts by freighters in the same way robotic cargo ships stock the ISS.
China has already invested billions of dollars in its space programme, launching two Moon orbiting satellite space missions – a third mission is expected to put a rover on the lunar surface. The Asian country is also busily deploying its own Sat-Nav system known as BeiDou, or Compass.
Soon a larger rocket, The Long March 5, will be able to launch over 20 tonnes into a low-Earth orbit – necessary for the construction of a space station. Tiangong-1 has a pre-supposed two-year lifetime, it will be followed by a second lab and maybe even a third.
China says that at the end of their missions, the modules will be burnt up in the atmosphere before falling into the Pacific Ocean.