"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

China’s Space Stations & Space Plane

China’s current Space Station projects are small, but growing. The interior volume of their station Tiangong 1 is about equal to Bigelow Aerospace’s unmanned Genesis I, except they are using a modular design. It’s much smaller than the US/Russian designs, but they intend to expand it by 2020 with the Tiangong 3:

Tiangong-3‘s design will form the basis of a larger, multi-module space station, which China plans to launch in the 2020-2022 timeframe.[2] When complete, the station will have a total mass of approximately 60,000 kilograms (130,000 lb), and will support three astronauts for long-term habitation.[1] The space station will have a design lifetime of up to ten years, and its components and service craft will be largely based on previous Tiangong modules. Its primary components will include:[1]

  • Core Cabin Module (CCM) – based on the Tiangong-3 design and analogous to the Russian Mir Core Module, the 18.1-meter (59 ft) CCM will have a maximum diameter of 4.2 meters (14 ft) and a launch weight of up to 22 tonnes (49,000 lb). It will be launched first, to serve as a docking hub for future modules and resupply spacecraft.[8]
  • Two Laboratory Cabin Modules (LCM-1 and LCM-2) – based on Tiangong-2, the two laboratory modules will each be 14.4 meters (47 ft) long, with the same maximum diameter and launch weight as the core module.[8] They will be used to perform scientific research in microgravity.
  • A robotic resupply craft – based on the original Tiangong-1 module, the automated cargo spacecraft will have a diameter of 3.35 meters (11.0 ft) and a launch weight of around 13 tonnes (29,000 lb). It will be used to transport supplies and lab facilities to the space station.[9][8]
China’s broad strategy has been cashing in on the fast follower advantage to advance as quickly as possible, though most of their technology and it’s specs are closed source so we have no idea how it will hold up versus current designs:

That’s right, the rumors appear to be true. Beijing is joining the United States as the only nations with reusable spaceplane designs that are actually conducting test flights. Beijing reportedly sent its Divine Dragon — or Shenlong — space plane aloft for a successful atmospheric test flight in January, 2011.

The U.S. uses its two X-37B spaceplanes for incredibly long missions doing super classified work in place, one can only guess that China’s Divine Dragon will be used for similar purposes.

Now, what’s the real news in this year and a half old story? Well, according to DT’s go-to China expert Andrew Erickson, its the speed at which China is closing the gap between the fielding of advanced technology compared to the U.S. Remember when then-defense secretary Robert Gates last year dismissed China’s new J-20 stealth fighter by saying that the PLA is about 20 years behind the Pentagon in terms of technology? The launch of the Divine Dragon less than a after the X-37B made its first space flight may be an indicator that China is closing that double decade technology gap, according to Erickson. (Notice how the Divine Dragon shown above looks remarkably similar to the X-37B? I would bet that plenty of useful info on the American program ended up in China as a result of cyber attacks — a key enabler to China’s ability to close the tech gap quickly.)

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