China is just days away from launching an ambitious rival to the International Space Station, pictured above. A rocket launch carrying an unmanned test module named Tiangong 1 — literally, “Heavenly Palace 1” — is scheduled for this week. Allegedly, the 8.5-ton Tiangong 1 module is designed to practice autonomous rendezvous ops in orbit, in order to prep for a manned space base around 2020. But China-watchers and space specialists are trying to figure out if there’s an additional agenda for the Heavenly Palace.
Will it be a spacelab equipped strictly for scientific research? Is there a military mission? Is it a jobs program for China’s “large, young, highly motivated and growing population of space scientists and engineers?” (That’s what Gregory Kulacki, from the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks.) Is the whole space-station program really just a PR ploy? Or some or all of the above?