With the launching of its manned spacecraft, Shenzhou-11, into orbit in a project designed to develop its ability to explore space, China on Monday came a step closer to complete its first space station by 2020 and operationalize services two years later.
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The spacecraft, launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, has two astronauts on board -- Jing Haipeng, 49, who has already been in space twice, and 37-year-old Chen Dong.
They will dock with the experimental Tiangong 2 space lab and spend 30 days there, the longest stay in space by Chinese astronauts.
China was earlier prevented from participating in the US-led International Space Station (ISS). With the ISS set to retire in 2024, the Chinese station offers a promising alternative, and China will be the only country with a permanent space station.
The Chinese space station will be more "economically efficient and informationised" than the ISS, Zhou Jianping, Chief Engineer of China's manned space programme, told Xinhua news agency following the launch of Tiangong-2 on September 15 this year.
It will be able to house a maximum of six astronauts at the same time and manned missions will become routine once the space station enters service, Zhou said.
The ISS, launched in 1998 and involving the US, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the participating countries of the European Space Agency, has been visited by 18 countries -- and counting, according to the mission website.
"The space station has been continuously occupied since November 2000. In that time, 222 people from 18 countries have visited," NASA said.
Measuring 34.1 feet in length and up to 10.9 feet in diameter, the tube-like Tiangong-2 is hardly the size of a palace. The ISS, on the other hand, measures 357 feet end-to-end -- equivalent to the length of a football field.
According to Zhu Zongpeng, Chief Designer of China's space lab system, Tiangong-2's workload includes POLAR, a collaboration between Swiss, Polish and Chinese institutions to study gamma ray bursts, the most energetic events in the universe.
A cold atomic space clock, which scientists say only loses one second in about 30 million years, is expected to make future navigation more accurate.
Scientists will also conduct a space-Earth quantum key distribution and laser communications experiment, to facilitate space-to-ground quantum communication.
After launching its first manned mission in 2003, China staged a spacewalk in 2008 and sent Tiangong-1 into space in 2011.
It succeeded in a manned docking in space in 2012 to become the third country to do so after the US and Russia, and landed its Yutu rover on the moon a year later.
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China also aims to send the Chang'e-5 probe to the moon, and to land a probe on Mars by 2021.