China has released some details of its plans for the large modular space station that it hopes to complete by 2022.
A news briefing by the China Manned Space Engineering Office on 26 September said the structure would carry out scientific experiments in up to 13 laboratories.
Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the office, said: "We have planned more than 13 laboratories and experimental platforms in the space station, and a large optical telescope will be sent into the same orbit to fly with the station."
He added: "We will conduct more than 30 research projects in eight areas, including space astronomy, space life science and biotechnology, microgravity fundamental physics and space materials."
Lyu Congmin, deputy chief designer of the station’s application system, said the structure would be a platform for more frontier space science experiments and applications.
"The space station can support space applications in and out of the cabin, and the payload can be adjusted in orbit. I believe the large-scale experiments will bring more important achievements with international influence and application value," he added.
The station is the third phase of the Tiangong ("heavenly palace") programme. It will be a third-generation structure, meaning it will be built in kit form and assembled in space.
The large modular station will occupy a low-Earth orbit – about 400km above the surface – and is expected to be operational for 10 years. It will consist of living quarters, a service section and a docking hub, and is able to accommodate three astronauts.
Officials have not given a cost for the programme, but it is expected to have a mass of about 100 tonnes, making it about 20% of the size of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is reckoned to have cost about $150bn to build, giving the Chinese scheme a notional price tag of $30bn.
The planned launch date of the station’s core module, the Tianhe-1 ("Harmony of the Heavens"), is 2020.
Image: The Shenzhou 5 spacecraft carried China’s first manned mission to space in 2003 (Creative Commons)