China is working towards a 2022 deadline to start operating its first permanent space station, Chinese officials have revealed.
Part of the Tiangong programme, which saw the first Chinese experimental space laboratory module known as Tiongong 1, or heavenly palace, delivered to the low Earth orbit in 2011, the ultimate space station will feature a rather complex layout resembling the 1990s Russian space lab Mir.
The space station project is part of China’s ambitious drive to become a space super power matching the abilities of the USA or Russia.
China's leaders consider the space programme, which includes a manned mission to the Moon, one of the country’s strategic priorities.
Before building the modular station, China plans to launch another single test module Tiangong 2 in 2016. The in-orbit construction of Tiangong 3 is expected to start in 2018 with the launch of the core structures. The project will be gradually completed over the next four years.
Tiangong 1, deorbited in 2013, was visited by two space crews. The first crew, part of the Shenzhou 9 mission, spent six days aboard the experimental space station in June 2012. Among the three crew members was China’s first female astronaut Liu Yang.
The second visit to Tiangong 1 followed one year later with another crew of three spending ten days inside the station as part of the Shenzhou 10 mission.
China originally planned to start operating Tiangong 3 two years earlier in 2020. The new date was announced by Yang Liwei, deputy head of China's Manned Space Agency and also the country's first astronaut.
China claims its dynamically evolving space programme is solely dedicated to peaceful purposes. However, the USA has warned that China’s growing space capabilities may enable China to prevent its adversaries from using space-based assets in a possibly crisis.