China Prepares to Launch First Space Lab

China is in the final stages of its plan to launch its first space lab module later this week.

China's upstart space program is preparing its space craft called the Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace," for orbit. The space module was originally destined for orbit between Sept. 27 and 30, but a cold weather forecast front delayed the launch date back to Sept. 29 or 30. The module will now launch on a Chinese Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China.

Although the Tiangong 1 will be unmanned, medical and engineering experiments will be onboard. Later this year, another unmanned spacecraft will dock with it.

Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. said "The Tiangong itself is a very small craft, roughly about, I believe, eight tons, and it's smaller than our SkyLab was. And the main purpose of this is two things: one, to practice docking maneuvers, and two, to allow Chinese astronauts to have a little more extended time in a microgravity environment."

Cheng also went on to say, "If that works out well then we would expect to see, next year, missions Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, both of which would be manned, doing docking with the Tiangong craft and probably moderate-duration stays."

Last Sunday, engineers ran a full ground simulation of the space module's launch.

"[The launch site] has the full conditions to conduct the Tiangong 1 mission", said Cui Jijun, commander-in-chief of the launch site system and director of Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Experts note that this mission will greatly benefit China's current space program. This scientific advancement could make great strides toward the nation's goal of building a 60-ton manned space station that is expected to finish by the year 2020.

China was the third nation to independently launch humans into orbit. China's first manned mission took place in 2003, which was the Shenzhou 5. That trip was then followed by two more manned missions in 2005 and 2008.