BEIJING China will next week launch an experimental craft paving the way for its first space station, an official said on Tuesday, bringing the growing Asian power closer to matching the United States and Russia with a long-term manned outpost in space.
The Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace," will blast off from a site in the Gobi Desert around September 27-30, adding a high-tech sheen to China's National Day celebrations on October 1, the Xinhua news agency said.
The small, unmanned "space lab" and the Long March rocket that will heave it skyward have been readied on a pad at Jiuquan in northwest Gansu province, Xinhua said, citing an unnamed spokesperson for the country's space program.
It will be the latest show of China's growing prowess in space, and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
The big test comes weeks after its launch, when the eight ton craft attempts to join up with an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft that China plans to launch.
"The main task of the Tiangong 1 flight is to experiment in rendezvous and docking between spacecraft," said the Chinese spokesperson, who added that this would "accumulate experience for developing a space station."
China's government will hope to set a successful Tiangong mission alongside other trophies of its growing technological prowess, including the launch of a trial aircraft carrier. And the launch, just before China's National Day holiday, is sure to come accompanied by a blaze of proud publicity.
"I would say there's a lot of political pressure to make sure that it's launched before the birthday party," said Morris Jones, a space analyst based in Sydney.
"The real test of Tiangong doesn't come with its flight as a solo mission. The real objective of this mission will come later on when it tries to dock with another spacecraft," said Jones.
"Without rendezvous and docking, you really cannot run an advanced space program. You're confined to launching small spacecraft that just operate by themselves," he told Reuters.
A "TEST-BED" FOR BIGGER AMBITIONS
Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the International Space Station, to which China does not belong. But the United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority for its space program, which has struggled with delays and glitches.
Beijing is still far from catching up with space superpowers. The Tiangong launch is a trial step in Beijing's plans to eventually establish a space station.
"Tiangong-1 is, I think, primarily a technology test-bed," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the U.S. Naval War College on Rhode Island, in emailed answers to questions.
"Technically, it has been compared to where the U.S. was during the Gemini program," she added, referring to NASA's manned space flights in the mid-1960s.
Over the next two years, China will probably attempt a Tiangong mission piloted by astronauts only after two initial missions, Gregory Kulacki, the China Project manager for Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote.
That feat will be followed by the launch of the Tiangong 2 and 3 space labs in following years, and preparations for a space station weighing 60 to 70 tons, wrote Kulacki.
"The real story is that when they eventually get around to building a space station it will look nothing like Tiangong," said Jones, the Australian expert.
"It's a test of a spacecraft that will one day be used as a cargo carrying vessel to a larger space station," he said.
This week, NASA unveiled plans for a deep-space rocket to carry astronauts to the moon and Mars. President Barack Obama has called for a human expedition to an asteroid by 2025 and a journey to Mars in the 2030s.
China launched its second moon orbiter last year after it became only the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their orbiting craft in 2008.
It plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover in 2012, and the retrieval of lunar soil and stone samples around 2017. Scientists have talked about the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.
China is also jostling with neighbors Japan and India for a bigger presence in space, but its plans have faced international wariness. Beijing says its aims are peaceful.
"With most space technology dual-use -- of value to both civil and military communities -- anything done by China in space will have spillover to the military, much the same as NASA's technical advancements do in the U.S.," said Johnson-Freese, the expert from Rhode Island.
"Tiangong is not going to immediately or directly provide China any military capabilities," she said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)