The Tiangong-1 module, or “Heavenly Palace-1,” was launched into space by the carrier rocket from a remote base in China’s northwest Gansu province ahead of the country’s National Day celebration Saturday.
The unmanned module, which will be operated remotely from a center in Beijing, will serve as a space laboratory and a docking target for other spacecraft. It will remain in space about two years.
The module is expected to rendezvous and dock with Shenzhou 8, another unmanned craft which is due to launch in early November. If the mission is successful, the module will dock with two more spacecraft, Shenzhou 9 and 10. Manned missions may begin in 2012.
Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said China’s spaceflight technology is roughly as sophisticated as that of Gemini, NASA’s human spaceflight program in the mid-1960s.
“Are they going over United States capabilities? No. But what they’ve got that we don’t is political will, which translates into money,” she said.
The launch Thursday was part of the second stage in China’s three-step strategy for the development of its space program.
The first step was the development of the Shenzhou capsule program, which in 2003 made China the third country in the world to successfully launch a human being into space. The second step currently underway involves spacewalking as well as rendezvous and docking. Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang completed the country’s first spacewalk in 2008. A space station may be launched between 2020 and 2022.
Wu Ping, a spokeswoman from China’s manned space program, said the technological advances facilitated by Tiangong-1 may also be “used for moon landings and deep space exploration,” according to China Daily. She emphasized that research for a potential moon landing is still in a nascent stage.
Morris Jones, a space analyst based in Sydney, Australia, said a moon landing may be possible before the year 2025, but added that a notorious lack of transparency in China’s space administration makes it difficult to speculate on the country’s long-term goals.
“They do not put their cards on the table and say everything that they’re thinking, planning, and doing the way NASA does,” he said.
Johnson-Freese said lack of transparency has led some foreign governments to perceive China’s space program as a threat. As is the case with many countries, she said, the vast majority of China’s spaceflight technology is shared by its military.
-- Jonathan Kaiman
Photo: A rocket carrying an experimental module for a future space station rises from the launchpad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu province Thursday. Credit: EPA