China to start building its Tiangong space station next year
Updated 14:00, 18-Oct-2019
By Ning Hong

China is preparing for its upcoming intensive space mission to construct its own space station Tiangong, and the Long March-5B carrier rocket, set to launch capsules to the space station, is expected to make its flight in 2020. 

That's a key step for China's Manned Space Engineering Project, which will mark the beginning of a series of launches, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office. 

The country aims to complete the construction of the space station around 2022. Weighing 66 tonnes, the Tiangong space station will be T-shaped with the Tianhe core module at the center and the Wentian and Mengtian experiment capsules on each side. 

The station, which will orbit 340 to 450 kilometers above the Earth's surface, could be enlarged to 180 tons if required and accommodate three to six astronauts. It is designed to last at least 10 years and could be prolonged through in-orbit maintenance, according to Zhou Jianping, chief designer, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Sixteen experiment racks will be installed on the space station to support hundreds of space research projects. 

Hired instead of appointed

The office also announced new leaders of China's Manned Space Engineering Project at a press conference on Tuesday. 

This put an end to the project's history of having leaders appointed. Another position called "chief expert in space science" was filled by hiring Gu Yidong, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to an announcement by the office, this change is "the inevitable requirement for the project to enter a new era of application development."

Wang Zhonggui, Yang Liwei (China's first astronaut), Chen Shanguang, Zhou Weifei, Liu Jin, Deng Yibing, Tang Yihua and Zhang Bonan, who are experts in the fields such as spacecraft, carrier rocket, space technology application, monitoring and communication systems, have been also appointed as deputy chief designers of China's manned space exploration.

A brief introduction of China's Manned Space Project

China's Manned Space Project was first put forward in 1970s by Qian Xuesen, which was known as the 714 project in its early stages.

The project officially started in 1992 and has been divided into three major steps. The first step was to launch manned spacecraft, the second to make breakthroughs in spacewalk and space docking, and the third is to build China's own space station.

After a series of tests and breakthroughs, China successfully carried out its first manned space mission in 2003.

China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei, boarded on the the Shenzhou – 5 spacecraft, spend 21 hours in space, circled the earth for 14 times, and safely returned.

Multiple missions were carried out since then, including space walks.

A manual spacecraft docking took place in 2012.

China has so far sent two female astronauts into space, who stayed for 30 days in Tiangong-2 Space Lab, carrying out a series of experiments.

China has also successfully conducted the unmanned space docking and on-orbit propellant resupply.

(With input from Xinhua.)

Backgrounder: How come China can build the next space station?

Check here for more detailed renders of the space station.