Beijing: China has launched an ambitious project to construct a "relatively large" manned space laboratory by 2020 to rival the space programmes of the US and Russia.
China is aiming to develop the first part of a space laboratory before 2016, focusing on breakthroughs in living conditions for astronauts and research applications, a spokesman for China`s national manned space programme said.
Plans are afoot to launch two unmanned space modules, Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou-8, in 2011, which were expected to accomplish the country`s first space docking, regarded as an essential step towards building, what officials call, a "relatively large" space station.
Tiangong-1 or Heavenly Palace, would eventually be transformed into a manned space laboratory after experimental dockings with Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft, with the last two carrying two or three astronauts each.
Efforts were on to develop and launch a core cabin and a second laboratory module around 2020, which would be assembled in orbit around the earth into a manned space station, the spokesman said.
"Technologies needed to build and run the space station complex and long-term manned space flight in terrestrial space will be grasped," the state-run Xinhua quoted him as saying.
He said the project would build on the achievements of previous programmes and continue to use the Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March F carrier rocket and their launch and landing sites, which are the mainstay of China` space launch infrastructure.
"After the construction of the space station, China`s three-step manned space programme will be complete," the spokesman said, adding that this would enhance the country`s technological progress, innovation, comprehensive power and prestige.
The three-step strategy involved first developing the Shenzhou spaceships, and then technologies needed for docking and extra-vehicular activities, currently underway, and finally construction of the space station, he said.