The leaders of China's human spaceflight endeavors say 2011 is shaping up to be the most ambitious year in the history of the country's space program.
China plans to launch the cornerstone of a new orbiting space laboratory some time in 2011. Weighing nearly 19,000 pounds, the Tiangong 1 module will be launched into orbit unmanned aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi desert, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Xinhua reported Qi Faren, the former chief designer of the piloted Shenzhou spacecraft, outlined China's human spaceflight plans Wednesday at a meeting of a Chinese political advisory committee.
Tiangong means Heavenly Palace in English.
Beginning as early as late 2011, China will launch three Shenzhou spacecraft to rendezvous and dock with Tiangong 1 in orbit. The first mission, named Shenzhou 8, will launch unmanned and approach the module in China's first orbital docking attempt.
Within two years of Tiangong 1's launch, two more Shenzhou ships will fly to the fledgling space station with Chinese astronauts aboard. The crewed flights will contain two or three astronauts each for temporary visits, according to Xinhua.
Chinese astronauts would conduct scientific experiments aboard the complex, according to Xinhua.
Military observations and investigations will also be likely payloads for the small space station.
China is preparing its second moon orbiter for launch in October of this year. The Chang'e 2 probe will carry a high-resolution camera capable of spotting lunar surface features as small as 3 feet.
Chang'e 2 will map potential landing sites for follow-on robotic missions that will attempt to reach the moon's surface, another first for the Chinese space program. China has not set a date for Chang'e 3's lunar landing mission.
A new modular heavy-lift rocket called the Long March 5 is on schedule to begin launching around 2014, according to Liang Xiaohong, another member of the Chinese political advisory panel and party chief of China's state-owned launch vehicle development organization.
Liang was also quoted by the Xinhua news agency.
The Long March 5 will be capable of placing up to 55,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit, according to Chinese space officials.
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