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In bid for space station status, China to build 'Heavenly Palace'

China is building the Tiangong 1, or Heavenly Palace, to join the International Space Station in permanent orbit in 2011. Both China and the US are wary of working too closely, even in space.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / March 26, 2010

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) may want to draw up a large “Welcome to the Neighborhood” sign. China has announced plans to launch a modest space station of its own next year.

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Initially, the 8.5-metric-ton module will be unmanned, providing a target that China’s budding human-spaceflight program can use to practice on-orbit dockings. If all goes well, however, taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) will move in.

After launching its first taikonaut into space in October 2003, China is now moving methodically and deliberately to catch up with other major space-faring nations.

China’s module, floridly named Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace), represents the first step in the country’s three-stage plan to assemble an orbiting lab. This first step is more akin to NASA’s Skylab, a converted second stage from Apollo-era Saturn V rockets that was launched in 1973. It hosted three crews between 1973 and 1974.

As currently envisioned, China’s final facility would be a collection of modules comparable to Russia’s Mir space station. Moscow took the 10-year-old Mir out of orbit in 1996 after becoming a partner in the NASA-led ISS project.

Beijing’s motives

To some extent, China may be driven by station envy, suggests Dean Cheng, a specialist on Chinese space and security issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

At the time, Russia had Mir in orbit. The United States and its Western partners had embarked on a space-station program and were only a year away from bringing Russia into the partnership. China wasn’t invited.

“If you don’t have a car, you might want one, even though your neighbor has a very nicely tricked-out Cadillac or BMW,” Mr. Cheng says.

That desire has been fueled by the role human spaceflight has played in helping to establish a country’s international standing, he adds.

“When you look at what China has said about space, one of the issues that’s very important is the role of advanced science and technology in building what the Chinese call comprehensive national power,” Cheng explains. “Are you derivative, or are you self-sufficient” in science and technology?

“Space, rightly or wrongly, is one of the crown jewels” in China’s effort to strive for scientific and technological self-sufficiency, he says.

SINO Space Milestones

1999 China launches Shenzhou 1 (meaning ‘Divine Craft,’ but it’s also a play on a name for China), its first unmanned spacecraft.

2001 China launches Shenzhou 2, with a monkey, a dog, and a rabbit in the reentry capsule.

2003 China puts the first Chinese astronaut – or taikonaut – into orbit. Lt. Col Yang Lwei spends 21-1/2 hours in orbit.

2008 China becomes the third nation to perform a spacewalk.

October 2010 A second lunar probe is planned, in preparation for an unmanned moon landing by 2012.

(Source: News and wire reports)