Less than a decade ago, it fired its first human being into orbit. Now, Beijing is working on a multi-capsule outpost in space. But what is the political message of the Tiangong 'heavenly palace'?
laid out plans for its future in space
yesterday, unveiling details of an ambitious new space station to be built in orbit within a decade.
The project, which one Nasa
adviser describes as a "potent political symbol", is the latest phase in China's rapidly developing space programme. It is less than a decade since China put a human into orbit for the first time, and three years since its first spacewalk.
The space station will weigh around 60 tonnes and consist of a core module with two laboratory units for experiments, according to the state news agency, Xinhua.
Officials have asked the public to suggest names and symbols for the unit and for a cargo spacecraft that will serve it.
Professor Jiang Guohua, from the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, said the facility would be designed to last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy.
The project heralds a shift in the balance of power among spacefaring nations. In June, the US space agency, Nasa, will mothball its whole fleet of space shuttles, in a move that will leave only the Russians capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station
. The $100bn (£60.5bn) outpost is itself due to fly only until 2020, but may be granted a reprieve until 2028.
Bernardo Patti, head of the space station programme at the European Space Agency
(Esa), said: "China is a big country. It is a powerful country, and they are getting richer and richer. They want to establish themselves as key players in the international arena.
"They have decided politically that they want to be autonomous, and that is their call. They must have had some political evaluation that suggests this option is better than the others, and I would think autonomy is the key word."
He added that China's plans would be "food for thought" for policymakers elsewhere. Esa and other nations are already discussing a next-generation space station that would operate as a base from which to explore space beyond low-Earth orbit; future missions could return astronauts to the moon, land them on asteroids, or venture further afield to Mars.
"Another country trying to build its own infrastructure in space is competition, and competition always pushes you to be better," Patti said.
The central module of the Chinese space station will be 18.1 metres (59.4ft) long, with a maximum diameter of 4.2 metres and a launch weight of 20 to 22 tonnes. The laboratory modules will be shorter, at 14.4 metres, but will have the same diameter and launch weight.
Pang Zhihao, a researcher and deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Space International, told Xinhua: "The 60-tonne space station is rather small compared with the International Space Station [419 tonnes] and Russia's Mir space station [137 tonnes], which served between 1986 and 2001.
"But it is the world's third multi-module space station, which usually demands much more complicated technology than a single-module space lab."
China is also developing a cargo spaceship, which will weigh less than 13 tonnes and have a diameter of no more than 3.35 metres, to transport supplies and equipment to the space station.
John Logsdon, a Nasa adviser and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said China's plans would give it homegrown expertise in human space flight. "China wants to say: 'We can do everything in space that other major countries can do,'" he said. "A significant, and probably visible, orbital outpost transiting over most of the world would be a potent political symbol."
China often chooses poetic names for its space projects, such as Chang'e – after the moon goddess – for its lunar probes; its rocket series, however, is named Long March, in tribute to communist history. The space station project is currently referred to as Tiangong, or "heavenly palace".
But Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told a news conference: "Considering past achievements and the bright future, we feel the manned space programme should have a more vivid symbol, and that the future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name.
"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."
China plans to launch the Tiangong-1 module later this year, to help master docking technologies. An unpiloted spacecraft will attempt to dock with the module; two piloted spacecraft will then follow suit.
Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the programme, said researchers were developing technology to ensure astronauts could remain in space for at least 20 days and to ensure supplies could be delivered safely.
According to Space.com, Jiang, the chief engineer at the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, in Beijing, told an international conference last month: "The rendezvous and docking project is smoothly going through technical preparations and testing
The Tiangong-2 should support three astronauts for around 20 days, while the Tiangong-3, which is due for launch in 2015, should support them for twice as long. The laboratories would allow China to develop the technology it needs to build the space station.
Jiang added that China aimed to increase international exchanges, and that the hardware from the current rendezvous and docking project is compatible with the International Space Station.
"We will adhere to the policy of opening up to the outside world," he said. "Scientists of all countries are welcome to participate in space science experimental research on China's space station."
China hopes to make its first moon landing within two years and to put an astronaut on the moon as early as 2025.