China Counts Down to Key Space Launch

Posted September 29th, 2011 at 1:47 am (UTC-5)
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Chinese scientists are counting down to a space launch Thursday evening that is billed as the first step in the nation's ambitious plan to build its own space station.

Chinese newspapers and broadcasters splashed detailed reports on the planned launch of an 8.5-ton module known as Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace.” Another unmanned spacecraft to be launched November 1 will meet up with the module for China's first space-docking procedure.

Assuming everything goes smoothly, China plans three more rendezvous-and-docking procedures before the end of next year, at least one of which will be manned. The program calls for construction of a space laboratory by 2016 and completion of a 60-ton space station around 2020.

The China Daily newspaper quotes a program spokeswoman saying the same technology can be used for moon landings and deep-space exploration, though there is presently no timetable for a moon landing.

Thursday's launch had been scheduled for August 18, but was postponed after a Long March 2-C rocket failed in the attempted launch of a satellite earlier this month.

Space officials say they have made 170 improvements since then to the Long March rocket, which will carry the Tiangong-1 module into orbit.

China conducted its first manned space flight in 2003, more than four decades after pioneering flights by the United States and the Soviet Union. However the latest efforts come at a time when the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle has left the future of the American space program in question.