China launches manned space station programme

China is aiming to develop the first part of a space laboratory before 2016, focusing on breakthroughs in living conditions for astronauts and research applications, a spokesman for China's national manned space programme said.

Plans are afoot to launch two unmanned space modules, Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8, in 2011, which were expected to accomplish the country's first space docking, regarded as an essential step towards building, what officials call, a "relatively large" space station.

Tiangong-1 or Heavenly Palace, would eventually be transformed into a manned space laboratory after experimental dockings with Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft, with the last two carrying two or three astronauts each.

Efforts were on to develop and launch a core cabin and a second laboratory module around 2020, which would be assembled in orbit around the earth into a manned space station, the spokesman said.

"Technologies needed to build and run the space station complex and long-term manned space flight in terrestrial space will be grasped," the state-run Xinhua quoted him as saying.

He said the project would build on the achievements of previous programmes and continue to use the Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March F carrier rocket and their launch and landing sites, which are the mainstay of China' space launch infrastructure.

"After the construction of the space station, China's three-step manned space programme will be complete," the spokesman said, adding that this would enhance the country's technological progress, innovation, comprehensive power and prestige.

The three-step strategy involved first developing the Shenzhou spaceships, and then technologies needed for docking and extra-vehicular activities, currently underway, and finally construction of the space station, he said.

The Shenzhu series is being modelled on Soyuz programme of Russia which led to the construction of the space station currently being used by both Russian and US space scientists.

The programme for the new space station was announced as China's second unmanned lunar probe, Chang'e-II manoeuvred to an experimental orbit last evening, making preparations for taking pictures of the moon's Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, where China plans to land its third lunar mission with a rover.

Scientists successfully activated four attitude control engines on Chang'e-II and sent the satellite into the orbit with a perilune of just 15 km above the moon, a flight control official said.

Chang'e-II was launched on October 1 by a Long March-3C carrier rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in southwest China's Sichuan Province. It will photograph the Bay of Rainbows region with its CCD cameras.

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