Encouraged by yesterday morning's historic rendezvous and docking of the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft, Chinese authorities said construction of a space station will begin as soon as 2013.
'We will do two more rendezvous and docking flights next year,' said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for the manned space programme, at a press conference in Beijing yesterday. 'After that, we will begin the construction of a space laboratory and space station.'
The space laboratory is expected to be up and running by 2016. If its architecture and equipment proves effective and reliable, the facility will grow into a full-scale space station by 2020, she said.
The construction will require more than 20 space flights using China's new heavy-lift launch vehicles, including LM-5 series rockets. Based on an average cost of five billion yuan (HK$6.10 billion) per flight, the ambitious project will require an investment of more than 100 billion yuan, according to space authorities.
It is the most detailed and assured official timeline of China's manned space programme, signifying growing confidence among authorities after the Shenzhou VIII docked with the Tiangong-1 space laboratory module shortly after 1am yesterday. Dr Morris Jones, a space analyst based in Australia, said the docking was vital for the future of China's manned-spaceflight programme, as a large space station cannot be constructed or maintained without repeated rendezvous and dockings.
'The docking was very smooth, but so was the launch,' he said. 'This suggests that the technology and manufacturing of China's space hardware is improving.'
Millions of mainlanders stayed up past midnight to watch the docking. Many with cable TV watched the event in high definition - a first for a Chinese space project. Guided by laser and microwave radars, the two spacecraft connected precisely and locked firmly without any technical glitches. Some scientists said the connection was indicative of China's significant advancements in electronics and manufacturing.
Cheng Ming, space programme director for the China Electronics Technology Group Corp, told Xinhua yesterday that all of the spacecraft's most sensitive equipment that was crucial to the mission is high on some developed countries' lists of hi-tech products that are embargoed from China. This presented a challenge to Chinese researchers, and pushed them to be innovative, Cheng said.
One of the most sensitive components, the laser-guidance radar, put enormous pressure on the company's R&D department and triggered fierce technical debates among researchers. They solved the argument by conducting experiments in the most hazardous environment they could find on earth - in the Himalayas, Cheng said.
The laser technology as well as other breakthroughs achieved during the mission - such as highly efficient solar panels - would filter through to mainstream industry, increasing the country's competitiveness, Cheng said.
The record combined amount, in US dollars, spent by more than 50 countries on domestic space programmes last year, says a Euroconsult study