Beijing says its Tiangong modular space station will take shape in low Earth orbit starting from 2020, and China is eager to welcome foreign astronauts aboard the 66-ton facility – roughly the size of the decommissioned Russian Mir.

The Tiangong is poised to be the only manned space station in orbit after the International Space Station (ISS) concludes its mission by the end of the next decade.

China will be the second nation to develop and use automatic rendezvous and docking for modular space-station construction.

Zhou Jianping, chief designer for China’s manned space program, told Xinhua that the Tiangong could grow in size to up to 180 metric tons if required for scientific research and could accommodate three to six astronauts for an in-orbit service life of no less than 10 years. But that, Zhou added, could be prolonged through proper maintenance.

The core cabin module, the first module to be launched in 2020, will provide life support and living quarters for three crew members, as well as guidance, navigation, and orientation control for the station. Consisting of living quarters, a service section and a docking hub, the main cabin module will also provide the station’s power, propulsion, and life-support systems.

The assembly method of the station can be compared to that of the Mir as well as the Russian orbital segment of the ISS.

Tiangong will have two laboratory cabin modules for a pressurized environment for experiments on free-fall or microgravity, which could not be conducted on Earth for more than a few minutes. Experiments can also be conducted outside of the modules on exposure to cosmic rays, vacuum, and solar winds.

The axial port of the two lab cabins will be fitted with rendezvous equipment and a mechanical arm.

The two lab cabins will also provide additional navigation avionics, propulsion and orientation control as backup functions for the main cabin.

Officials at the China Academy of Space Technology tasked to implement the ambitious Tiangong program said they wouldn’t pursue “retaliation” and ban partners from the US even though that country’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is still rigorously excluding Chinese citizens and funds from virtually all of its programs and initiatives.

Overseas proposals and projects can be submitted online (www.css-research.cn) and will be peer-reviewed.

In February 2017, Beijing entered a deal with the Italian Space Agency for cooperation on long-term human spaceflight activities. Italy is an active participant of the ISS program whose experience in building observatory and multipurpose modules is something Beijing hopes to tap into.

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