China's space program will launch an unmanned experimental module next year, the first component of its permanent space station, state media reported Wednesday.
Before the completion of the station, the 8.5 ton module, named Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace," will be used for docking practice by China's Shenzhou space craft, Qi Faren, the program's veteran chief designer, was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency. The unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission is expected to dock about two years after Tiangong's launch, followed by manned Shenzhou 9 and 10 flights.
Xinhua quoted Liang Xiaohong, head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, as saying Tiangong 1 would be slung into space atop a modified version of the two-stage Long March 2F rocket capable of carrying payloads of more than eight tons.
A permanent orbiting space station is a component of China's space ambitions, although no target completion date has been given.
The space program's strong connection to China's armed forces and the secretive, authoritarian nature of Beijing's communist one-party government has inhibited cooperation with the U.S. and other nations -- including on the newly completed International Space Station.
Other Chinese plans include launching a second lunar probe in October in preparation for an unmanned moon landing by the end of 2012. A possible manned lunar mission has also been proposed -- with a target date of 2017 -- putting China in the forefront of a tightening Asian space race involving India, Japan and South Korea.
China launched its first manned flight in 2003, joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch humans into orbit, and in 2008 carried out its first spacewalk.