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China's space station: A new era of space exploration?

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The launch of the Tiangong-1 space lab was a monumental milestone for the ascending superpower, but more importantly its about what happens next.

With the retirement of NASA's space shuttles and Russia announcing plans to eventually sink the International Space Station, 2011 hasn't exactly shaped up to be a banner year for space exploration. But don't tell that to China, where the feeling is far from mutual.

On Thursday evening, the unmanned Tiangong-1 space lab launched into orbit aboard a Chinese Long March 2F rocket, a monumental milestone for an ascending superpower embarking on it's own golden age of space exploration. The move is part of the China National Space Administration's bold vision to put into operation a 60-ton space station in orbit by 2020.  In the next phase, officials will launch in 2013 the Tiangong-2, a module equipped to provide three astronauts with a livable environment for about 20 days. Tiangong-3, scheduled for 2015, will enable to the astronauts to stay on-board for about twice as long, during which time they'll conduct experiments to test regenerative life-support technology and other space survival projects.

While flipping the lights on aboard a fully-functional space station would be an impressive accomplishment for a nation that only eight years ago sent their first astronauts into space, officials would still consider it merely a stepping stone towards much more ambitious goals, such as colonizing the moon and, perhaps, even a manned mission to Mars. But before the fledgling space program can even begin dreaming about setting foot on other planets, scientists need to show that they're up to task technologically. At this point, it means demonstrating that their Shenzhou space capsule is capable of successfully docking the space lab.

"It’s a big deal at several levels," said Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation told Space.com. "If all goes according to plan this will be China's initial effort at docking, and of course docking is one of those sin qua nons for more prolonged exploration of space. They have to get this skill set down."

China is gearing up the Shenzhou spacecraft for three upcoming flights in which it will connect with the Tiangong 1 module. First up is the Shenzhou 8 mission, scheduled to launch in November, followed by Shenzhou 9 the following year. Both trips will be unmanned missions and serve as docking trials in preparation for Shenzhou 10, a potentially manned journey that's expected to be notable in more than one way since it may include the country's first female astronaut.

Though the Chinese have completed three manned missions using the capsule, it has never met the type of stringent standards that would have enabled it to dock with the International Space Station. The Space Review's Dwayne A. Day sheds some light on the often-complicated relations between the U.S. and china and why NASA considers the Shenzhou technology to be unproven:

For starters, the United States has limited knowledge of and therefore no confidence in the Chinese manned spacecraft. To date, Shenzhou has flown only twice with humans aboard. The second flight took place two years after the first, and the third, scheduled for this year, will be three years after the second. It is doubtful that the Chinese themselves can have much understanding and confidence in the vehicle considering how rarely they actually fly it. If they were moving any slower, they’d be going backward. Each new flight accomplishes more than the last, but they may be losing experience they have gained—you can climb stairs with less steps if take them three at a time, but you also run the risk of falling and breaking your neck.

Despite such doubts, China has shown it has no qualms about going its own way and the successful launch of Tiangong-1 should set the stage for what will be -- at the very least -- a defining year.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure