First Piece Of Chinese Space Station Assembled For 2011 Launch
Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang waves from outside his Shenzhou 7 spacecraft September 27, 2008. He became his country's first spacewalker.
Credit: China National Space Administration

China says it has completed assembling the first module for its space station, and the country's space agency hopes to launch it next year.

The unmanned Tiangong-1 module, weighing almost 19,000 pounds (8,500 kg), will lift off on a Chinese Long March 2F carrier rocket sometime in the first half of 2011, China's Xinhua news agency reported Tuesday. An unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 8 vehicle, is expected to launch later and rendezvous with the module in the first demonstration of the Chinese space station's docking capability.

Testing is currently under way on the Tiangong-1, including analysis of the module's electronic, mechanical and thermal properties, a military source told Xinhua. Tiangong means "Heavenly Palace" in English.

The space station plans are part of China's burgeoning space program, which kicked off with the nation's first manned spaceflight, the 2003 mission of Shenzhou 5. China is the third country in the world, behind Russia and the United States, to independently have launched humans to space.

Eventually, China plans for manned spaceships to dock with Tiangong-1 and crews to take up residence on the station. If the Shenzhou 8 mission goes well, its successors, Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, are likely to launch with Chinese "taikonauts" on board in 2012.

China also plans to add more rooms to the space station after it is established. The second module, Tiangong-2, is scheduled to debut in 2013, to be followed by the launch of Tiangong-3 sometime between 2014 and 2016, Chinese authorities have said.

Once the Chinese space station is fully assembled ? perhaps around 2022 ? it is expected to function for about three years.

The newest batch of recruits to the Chinese taikonaut corps includes the country's first female spaceflyers. The astronauts are training now for those upcoming docking missions, the source told Xinhua.