China's Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) has confirmed longstanding rumors by stating that the nation's first orbiting space station will be completed in the year 2020. The space station, provisionally named “Tiangong” (Heavenly Palace), will be constructed in orbit from a series of modules launched separately over the next few years.
The first module to be launched will be the 18.1 meter (59.4 ft) long core module with a launch weight of between 20 and 22 tons. Upon completion the station will be the world's third multi-module space station, following the footsteps of NASA's Skylab, Russia's Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).
According to Pang Zhihao, deputy editor-in-chief of Space International, “The 60-ton space station is rather small compared to the International Space Station (419 tons), and Russia's Mir Space Station (137 tons).” Size doesn't always matter, continued Pang, who pointed out that “multi-module space stations... usually demand much more complicated technology than a single-module space lab.” China is also developing dedicated cargo spaceship to perform regular re-supply missions to the new space station.
China's space program has been growing by leaps and bounds since 2003 when Yang Liwei (left), piloting the one-man Shenzhou-5 capsule, became China's first man in space. This achievement was followed up in 2008 when astronauts aboard the 3-man Shenzhou-7 performed China's first space walk.
The 2020 completion date is an auspicious one for China's space program as it is also the target year for a planned manned mission to the moon. China's Chang'e 2 lunar probe was launched in October 2010 and a sample-return mission is in the works for 2017.
In an unusual step, CMSEO's directors are soliciting suggestions from the public for the space station's and cargo ship's names and logos. According to Yang Liwei, who is now the deputy director of CMSEO, “The activity will advance the popularity of scientific and technological knowledge on manned space flight and promote the public attention and interest in space flights, particularly in the younger generation.” I dunno, YL, “Heavenly Palace” sounds a lot more inspirational than “Skylab”.
In any case, Chinese space fans appear to be excited by the chance to name the new station and cargo ship: as of April 25th, the official micro-blog at qq.com had already logged around 20,000 followers. as of April 25. Suggestions will be accepted at www.cmse.gov.cn or can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org with results to be announced by the end of September 2011. (via People's Daily Online and China Daily)