China plans to launch three Shenzhou, or Magic Ship, space capsules to dock with the Tiangong-1 over the next two years.
Shenzhou-8, the next mission in China’s manned space program, is scheduled to dock with the 8.5-ton Tiangong, or Palace of Heaven, in early November.
The two capsules will dock within two days of the launch of Shenzhou-8, Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said at the launch center on Wednesday.
They will stay linked for 12 days and then perform a second rendezvous and docking maneuver before Shenzhou-8 returns to Earth.
Astronauts are scheduled to visit Tiangong-1 next year on one or both of the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 missions, which will set up a mini-space station comprised of linked capsules.
Tiangong-1 has a total length of 10.4 meters and a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, Wu said.
The vessel, which has a planned orbital life of two years, consists of two modules.
The power module controls the spaceflight while the work module contains equipment for space experiments and has a 15-cubic-metre space designed to accommodate up to three astronauts.
The unattached end of the work module houses a docking mechanism for linking it with the Shenzhou spacecraft to form a small space laboratory in which astronauts can conduct scientific experiments.
If the Shenzhou missions and docking technology prove successful, two more Tiangong missions will follow over the next five years, with the two spacecraft linked to form a larger space laboratory.
China will then begin the launches that are scheduled to lead to the assembly of its first permanent space station around 2020.
Key to its success are the heavy-duty Long March-5 rockets under development to carry loads of up to 25 tons to build the 60-ton space station, which will have an 18-metre-long main capsule linked to two 14-metre work modules.
The modules for the space station will be sent into orbit from a new launch centre under construction on the southern island of Hainan.
China achieved the first landmark in its human spaceflight programme in 2003 when Yang Liwei, a former air force pilot, became the first Chinese astronaut in space on the Shenzhou-5 mission.
Yang’s mission was followed by two more piloted Shenzhou missions.
Astronauts on the latest one in 2008 completed the nation’s first spacewalk.
Wu said China was also using technology from its Tiangong and Shenzhou missions to prepare for unmanned lunar landings and deep space exploration.
But scientists were ”only doing concept research and preliminary feasibility studies on manned moon landings, without a timetable,” she said.
China has already launched two lunar probes in its Chang’e programme, which is named after a Chinese moon goddess.
Chang’e-2 was launched in October 2010 to prepare for the country’s first unmanned moon landing scheduled for 2013.
Chang’e-3 will feature a first lunar rover designed to be followed around 2017 by another rover capable of returning to Earth with mineral samples.
Scientists said last year that one focus of China’s lunar soil analysis would be the level of helium-3, an isotope that could potentially be used in nuclear fusion in the future .
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