China has announced that between 2019 and 2022, the nation's space program will launch several manned space flights designed to ultimately complete the Chinese Space Station. The announcement followed last week's successful refueling of the space lab already in orbit, an event that effectively ended China's space lab mission and heralds the beginning of space missions that will complete the construction of the space station.
"Tianzhou-1, China's first cargo spacecraft, was the last flight mission of the country's manned space program before the construction of a permanent space station," Wang Zhaoyao, director of China's manned space program office, said at a press conference Friday (April 28), according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The cargo spacecraft and Tiangong-2 space lab completed their first in-orbit refueling the day before.
"The successful conclusion of the mission shows that China's manned space program has entered the space station era."China has been pursuing an aggressive space agenda over the past couple decades, a marked contrast with the scaled-back space programs of space pioneering nations like Russia (which peaked as a member of the United Soviet Socialist Republics) and the United States. Although both of those countries help maintain the International Space Station (along with the European Space Agency), the U.S., which remains the only nation to put men on the Moon and once maintained the world's only space shuttle fleet, has been relegated, due to decreased funding for NASA, to having its astronauts hitch rides on Russian rockets.
China launched its first man into orbit in 2003. It launched the first stage of its space station in 2015. At present, the Tiangong-2 space lab, the successor to Tiangong-1, moves in low Earth orbit. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, its successor, the Tianhe core module, the first of three components of the Chinese Space Station, will launch in 2018. It will be followed by two experiment modules that will complete the space station by 2022.
If all continues as planned, the Chinese Space Station will become the only station in orbit in 2024, when the International Space Station is scheduled to be deorbited. Initially launched in 1998, the massive spacecraft, which is three times as long and six times as heavy as China's, will have spent 26 years in orbit.
When complete, the Chinese Space Station will weigh between 60 and 70 metric tons. At 37 meters (121 feet) in length, it will be slightly longer (by six meters, or nearly 20 feet) than the Russian space station Mir (1986-2001) but more lightweight by half.
"The space station program has been progressing steadily with its key technologies and plans already completed and its relevant flight products being tested," Wang said last week. "Chinese astronauts are preparing for the space station era. They are expected to stay in space for three to six months or even longer during future missions."
The Chinese Space Station is only one segment of China's ambitions for its young space program. It was announced back in March that future space missions would include unmanned and manned missions to the Moon, along with unmanned missions to Mars as well. An unmanned mission scheduled for next year has as its target the far side of the Moon, where a lander probe is set to touch down for the first time in history.
Last week, the European Space Agency confirmed that it had been in talks with China about a collaborative Moon space project that could see the construction of a manned Moon base along the lines of the International Moon Village proposed by the agency last year. The lunar base would not only operate as a scientific outpost but could become instrumental as a jump-off point for future manned missions to Mars.
[Featured Image by Beijing Space Command and Control Center via Xinhua/AP Images]