China unveiled plans for its own space station, to be completed by 2020, along with a cargo ship to ferry supplies to and from orbit.
The space station will be a 60 metric ton, three-module structure, according to Xinhuanet, the state-owned news service. The plans were announced by the China Manned Space Engineering Office at a news conference.
An 18.1-meter-long core module, with a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters and weighing 20 to 22 tons, will be launched first. Two experiment modules will then be launched and dock with the core module. Each laboratory module will be 14.4 meters long, with the same maximum diameter and weight of the core module.
The proposed space station is smaller than the International Space Station, which consists of 16 pressurized modules and weighs in at 419 metric tons. The Russian Mir space station weighed 130 metric tons.
Even so, the fact that the country is proposing one is a sign of the Chinese government's ambitions in space. China is the third nation to launch its own manned rockets into space, sending its first astronaut into orbit in 2003 aboard the Shenzhou 5 rocket. Since then two other manned missions have been launched.
China plans to launch a space module called Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft in the latter half of this year, in the country's first unmanned rendezvous and docking mission. Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 are planned for 2012 to dock with Tiangong-1.
Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the program, said China now needs to develop technologies to support stays in space of at least 20 days as well as cargo supply technology.
The announcement comes right at the time when the U.S. will be without the ability to send astronauts to orbit for at least several months, and possibly years, as it will end the space shuttle program this summer. After that Russia will be the only nation with the capability of sending humans into orbit to get to the ISS.
The Chinese space agency has even asked the public to take part in naming the space station. The name Tiangong means heavenly palace and :Shenzhou means divine vessel. 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, said Wang Wenbao, director of the Manned Space Engineering Office.
The Chinese government has also said it plans to send astronauts to the Moon, and possibly beyond, in the decades to come, and the space station is part of that project.