China says it’s prepared to launch an experimental spacecraft, paving the way for its first space station, according to a state media report Tuesday.
The Tiangong 1, or “Heavenly Palace,” will blast off from a site in the Gobi Desert around Thursday.
State broadcaster CCTV reports the small, unmanned “space lab” and accompanying rocket have been readied on a pad in northwest Gansu Province.
Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the International Space Station, while China was not involved. 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.
But Beijing is still far from catching up with the space superpowers. The Tiangong launch is a trial step in Beijing’s plans to eventually establish a space station.
Over the next two years, China will probably attempt a Tiangong mission piloted by astronauts only after two initial missions. That’s according to Gregory Kulacki, the China Project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
That will be followed by the launch of the Tiangong 2 and 3 space labs in the following years, and preparations for a space station weighing 60 to 70 tons.
Last 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. That made it the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their orbiting craft.
It’s planning 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 space ambitions are peaceful.