The People's Republic of China will go it alone to assemble a small manned space station in orbit this decade, according to plans announced by officials yesterday.
The China Daily reports on a news conference held by the PRC's Manned Space Engineering Office, the arm of the People's Liberation Army* responsible for Chinese manned space efforts.
"Considering past achievements and the bright future, we feel that the manned space program should have a more vivid symbol," said Wang Wenbao, director of the Office.
According to Wenbao and his colleagues the station, yet to be named, will be assembled by docking together an 18m-long core module and two 14-metre lab modules to form a T shape with the lab modules forming the arms of the T. Manned Shenzhou modules serving as crew ferries and lifeboats will dock at the central junction, and specially developed unmanned supply ships - along the lines of the Russian Progress and European ATV jobs which service the International Space Station - will dock at the bottom of the T.
All up the Chinese station is expected to mass around 60 tonnes, quite small compared to the 400-tonne+ ISS or even Russia's 1990s-era Mir station which weighed in at approximately 130 tonnes. Nonetheless it will be only the third multi-module space station ever built, a notable achievement for a relatively recently arrived space player like China.
Previously the rough plans for a station have been referred to under the name "Tiangong", meaning roughly "heavenly palace". However the PLA is now taking a leaf out of NASA's book by inviting the Chinese public to submit names for the station and its attendant cargo ships.
"The future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name," said Wenbao. "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."
Names for the station will be taken until 25 July and a selection will be made by the end of September, China Daily reports. A handle will be chosen for the cargo ship by the end of June, so suggestions for that will need to be in by May 20. Our Chinese readers can pop in their ideas by email to email@example.com, or at the Manned Space Engineering Office website.
Immediate moves expected toward the station's deployment are launch of a test unmanned "Tiangong-1" module and an unmanned Shenzhou ship later this year in a mission designed to try out the station's docking technology. Manned Shenzhou missions from next year may visit the core module, but long stays in space by taikonauts - of the sort needed to permanently crew the station - aren't expected right away.
According to spokesman Wang Zhaoyao, under the current Five-Year Plan (2011-15) the People's Republic expects to achieve 20-day manned space missions. It will also move to develop the unmanned cargo ships which will allow a permanent crew aboard the space station.
The China Daily report is here. ®
*One should bear in mind that the PLA is in charge of much larger sections of government and even private activity than is normal in other nations: the mere fact of the PLA being in charge doesn't lend the Chinese space programme a particularly military character.