Not much is known about the project, which is still in the early stages, but it is certain that the spacecraft will be so big that it will have to be assembled in space.
According to the South China Morning Post, the National Natural Science Foundation, part of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, is already actively seeking researchers to help bring the project to life. Since such a spacecraft would be too large to be launched from Earth, the outline plan published by the foundation is to build it from modules that would be launched into orbit in a series of launches, with the spacecraft itself assembled in space. The launches would most likely be carried out by the Long March 9 rocket currently under development, which is expected to be ready by 2030 and capable of delivering up to 140 tonnes of cargo at a time into low Earth orbit. Under the five-year plan, the researchers would be tasked with developing the theoretical basis for building the spacecraft, including how to minimise the mass of the modules and how to assemble such a large structure in space without damaging it.
The paper adds that no decision has yet been taken on the construction of the spacecraft, which is just one of ten ideas put forward by the foundation’s maths and physics department earlier this month. The foundation will select five of the proposals, each of which will receive a grant of 15 million yuan.
In recent years, China has given a major boost to its space programme, which has recently achieved a number of major successes. At the end of April, they launched the central module of their space station, which has since hosted astronauts, in May they became the second country after the US to put a working Mars rover on the surface of Mars, and their probes have become a regular visitor to the Moon in recent years. The Chinese space agency will not slow down in the future, including plans for a lunar base to be built jointly with Russia.
Although the Chinese space shuttle plan is far beyond anything that has been done so far, there are already plans for similar large-scale projects, with Voyager Station currently the closest to being realised. The Orbital Assembly Corporation, which includes former NASA engineers in its ranks, intends to build a space station capable of carrying up to 400 people at a time, complete with artificial gravity, before 2030. The Voyager Station would also be built in space, and the company recently announced that it has successfully tested a robot prototype for a device that would enable construction in space.
While the Chinese giga-spacecraft is still a long way off, we could see a much bigger spacecraft taking off in the near future. SpaceX is reportedly well on track with the construction of the final version of Starship, which already has its Super Heavy launcher. Designed to travel to the Moon and Mars, the Starship will carry up to 100 people at a time and, if all goes to plan, could be ready for its first unmanned orbital test in a matter of weeks.