China will launch the core module of its manned space station around 2020 and is preparing the rocket that will lift the module, according to a program insider.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program, said the development of the space station has entered a crucial stage, and engineers have started to build the core module.
He said Chinese researchers are also designing a new type of extravehicular mobility spacesuit that can allow astronauts to conduct activities over an extended time frame outside the spacecraft, as Chinese astronauts will need to carry out several extravehicular operations to install or fine-tune equipment inaccessible from inside the station.
Zhou made the remarks on the sidelines of the first session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which opened on March 3. He is a member of the national political advisory body.
The station will consist of three parts — a core module and two space labs, each of which will weigh around 20 metric tons. The entire structure has a designed operational life span of at least 10 years, according to the China Manned Space Agency.
After the core module is placed into orbit around 2020, about four manned spaceflights will be made to send astronauts to install other section.
The space station is expected to be fully operational by around 2022, according to the agency, and it will likely become the world’s only space station in 2024 if the United States-led International Space Station is retired that year as planned. Zhou said once the station begins formal operation, it will be manned by three astronauts in extended shifts that will last several months. During handovers between shifts, the station will accommodate up to six astronauts.
China is also developing a space telescope with a viewing angle 200 times wider than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, and plans to install it on the Chinese space station, he added.
In another development, the China Manned Space Agency said on March 5 that engineers will this month begin assembling a prototype of the Long March 5B, which will be tasked with lifting the space station’s core module and other parts into orbit.
The statement added that the rocket is expected to make its maiden flight around June 2019 to verify its reliability and capabilities.
This year, China will work with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to publish opportunities for foreign space agencies hoping to establish cooperative projects on the Chinese space station, according to the statement.