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Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 16:34 GMT


China plans space shuttle launch

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The Chinese look likely to launch a re-usable space shuttle at the end of next year. The mission will be unmanned.

"The time is basically set for the end of next year," said Zhang Nan of the Nanjing Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory. He is in charge of one of dozens of scientific research projects that will be aboard the spacecraft.

"Among the projects will be many experiments towards future manned shuttle missions," he said. The announcement interests western observers as, taken with other recent proclamations, it suggests that China may be planning something big in space.

It is possible they could become only the third nation to be able to launch its own astronauts into space onboard its own rockets.

This is something China has always wanted to do. In 1979, pictures of a Chinese astronaut in training appeared in the Chinese press - but soon afterwards the project was suspended.

Russian connection

At the end of the 1980's, China's manned ambitions were rekindled again and they talked of building a small manned space shuttle. But that again came to nothing. However, since 1991, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has been co-operating with the Russians.

Two Chinese astronauts have undergone basic cosmonaut training in Russia and have returned to China reportedly to pass on their knowledge to other candidates. In 1996, the head of the Russian Space Agency, Yuri Koptev, visited China and a secret agreement was drawn up between the two nations.

It is suspected by some analysts that China has purchased the docking system used by Russian spacecraft and that it could be used to link two manned Chinese spacecraft sometime in the future.

It has even been suggested that China may have been the mystery backer that the Russian government hoped would pay for Mir to stay in orbit. China certainly has the basic technology required for manned spaceflight.

It has launched rats and mice into space and returned them to Earth. China is reported to be developing an improved version of its Long March 2E booster that could carry men into space.

Hypersonic craft

Spy satellite images suggest that much work is being carried out on a new launchpad at the Jiuquan launch site. Possibly to build a launch pad capable of supporting manned launches. A recent Pentagon report said that China was also researching hypersonic craft, the type of research required to build a space shuttle.

Last month the official Xinhua news agency issued a dispatch saying the country would "try its best to attain manned space flight by the end of this century or the beginning of the next."

Last year, Xu Dazhe, a leading Chinese space scientist, said that the immediate requirement for manned flights was to boost the payload capacity of Chinese rockets.

Recently, the China Great Wall Company, the firm that manages most aspects of the space programme, said that had already been done and two capable launchers would be tested in the near future.

China's manned space timetable is a closely-guarded state secret. There are rumours that they may be planning a space spectacular, possibly manned, this October to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Chinese communist state.

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