China's Lunar Palace is no mere space station. Once launched into orbit and beyond in six years, this celestial biosphere will be the most sophisticated (and elbow-roomy) pad in space.
By human's standards, of course.
Maybe they've only been launching astronauts into space for a decade, but that's been long enough for China to know that their own Lunar Palace space station would definitely come complete with a living room in addition to the living quarters, a research laboratory, bathroom, organic recycling station, and all the insects and produce that two aquaponic grow operations can churn out.
Already, Lunar Palace 1 has gotten a full test drive. On Earth, of course, at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Three volunteers just emerged from the 1,700-square-foot (160-square-meter) mock-up after 105 days locked inside. They ate and drank nothing but the fruits and mealworms of their own making, while performing various research functions in preparation for when a lack of gravity is someday thrown into the mix.
Leftover food was aged into compost. Toilet waste was zapped via biofermentation.
That's the kind of self-sufficiency required of what is known as a closed-loop life-support system, or biosphere. And it's the kind of environment required for a station that China hopes will finally bring it some space-age bragging rights.
"Lunar Palace 1 is the first bio-regenerative life support base developed in China and the third in the world," the China Manned Space Engineering Office brags in a press release. "The success of Lunar Palace 1 research indicates that China has been among the most advanced in the field of bio-regenerative life support research, which will play a significant role in China's future missions like manned moon landing, lunar base establishment (and) Mars exploration."
That's right: China has aims to plant a base on the moon. And having an established bio-regenerative space station is a solid step toward a Lunar Palace being on the actual lunar surface. Liu Hong, the program's top designer, said, "I think the biggest significance of this system is the ability to provide the necessary theoretical basis and technical support for a lunar base."
And since the designer space destination of the day is Mars, such a moon base will only give China an opportunity to work out more kinks before the Red Planet gets a franchise, said Professor Larry Young, an astronautics life-support expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"China's Lunar Palace 1 gives an entirely new meaning to 'Chinese takeout'," Young told SPACE. "We still have a long way to go before space crews can live entirely on food raised in their on-board gardens, but this long journey has, as Confucius might have said, started with the first step."
This, he said, was China's first big step. Getting to Mars, however, might take something more akin to a giant leap by all of mankind.
[Image courtesy of the China Manned Space Engineering Office]