China’s military, which runs the space programme, has released few details but says it will send multiple crews to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional. It is due to be completed by the end of next year.
Shenzhou-13 will be the fifth mission, including uncrewed trips to deliver supplies.
When completed with the addition of two more modules – named Mengtian and Wentian – the station will weigh about 66 tons, a fraction of the size of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and will weigh around 450 tons when completed.
China was excluded from the International Space Station largely due to US objections over the Chinese programme’s secretive nature and close military ties. It made plans to build its own space stations in the early 1990s and had two experimental modules before starting on the permanent station.
US law requires congressional approval for contact between the American and Chinese space programmes, but China is cooperating with space experts from countries including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy.
China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.
Along with its crewed missions, China has expanded its work on lunar and Mars exploration, including placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and returning lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose accompanying Zhurong rover has been exploring for evidence of life on the red planet.
Other programmes call for collecting soil from an asteroid and bring back additional lunar samples. China has also expressed an aspiration to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.
Source: Channel News Asia