While debate on future of ISS is still ongoing, China is announcing their plan to set new space station capable for permanent habitation.
China is not wasting time for talking. After gossips in 2014 and 2015 about first core module of new space station planned to be launched not earlier then in 2020s, now it was announced that date is set for 2018. To fully understand Chinese plans it should be reminded how China started and developed their space station program.
First laboratory module with possibility of period habitation, called Tiangong-1 was launched on 29 September 2011 and placed on orbit of 363 km x 381 km. It was small laboratory station with weight at 8.5 t consisted of two modules: service (with solar arrays) and laboratory. With length of 10,5 m and diameter of 3,35 m (with 15 cubic meters of space), station was capable to provide enough space for 3 crew members. Life support system was able to serve in short missions (longest mission of Shenzhou-10 lasted 15 days). It was simple construction, with only one docking port; even to use cooking equipment or toilet, crew members were forced to use docked Shenzhou spacecraft. Tiangong-1 still remains on orbit but it is not used - it will be deorbited in 2016. Next station, Tiangong-2 is planned for 2016. It will be larger module with length of 14,4 m diameter of 4,42 m and mass at 13 t. Life support system will make possible missions lasting up to 20 days. It will be probably equipped with two docking ports for docking of resupply spacecraft – Tianzhou, to give opportunity of extended time missions.
On April 21, 2016, Chinese news agency Xinhua announced, that next phase of space station program is set for 2018. Due the fact, that Tiangong stations were not designed for permanent habitation and were more technology demonstrators than ultimate solution, China was still considering establishing first permanently habitable station as soon as possible. First possible date was 2020s, what was confirmed by Deputy Director of the PLA General Armaments Department Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin. He mentioned in interview for Xinhua that China is still developing multimodular space station (You can read more here). Now it seems that it will be much earlier than in 2020s - already in 2018. New core module is called Tianhe-1 and is developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. After launching core module, two additional laboratory modules will be docked to Tianhe-1 - whole station will became fully operational on 2022. Work on Tianhe-1 is progressing on multiple levels. "Xuntian" space telescope is under development and it will be send to orbit close to Tianhe-1 in 2022 to provide possibility easy service of telescope by crew members remaining on station. Chinese engineers are also developing rescue capsule for Tianhe-1 to provide constant possibility of abandoning station in case of any serious problems. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is also working on ten meter long robotic arm. It will be utilized for all necessary maintenance of the Tianhe along with supporting science experiments and extracting payload. Arm will be highly flexible mechanism with multiple joints providing covering with their range whole station. Impressive are two facts regarding robotic arm. First is that it will not have fixed ends-arm will be able to move around the station what will makes easier any kind of task, even performed on most farthest modules. Second innovative achievement will be fact, that arm will be highly autonomous; with number of sensors and cameras, robotic arm will be able to perform actions without engaging crew members or operators in mission center on Earth. Work is in progress, and according to Xinhua, engineers are developing two prototypes: one for core module and one for future experimental module. If both arms will be manufactured and installed on station they will be able to cooperate during different tasks.
It seems that China is doing their best to create real space station with ultimate goal to provide most modern scientific platform as possible. After decommissioning of ISS, Chinese station will become only space platform for scientific experiment and probably some modules will be offered for rent. Providing as many as possible modern solutions and research instruments will make Chinese station attractive solution for space agencies like ESA - with budget large enough to pay for rent modules on space station but too small to develop independently own space laboratory. Space station race started and China is its leader at the moment.
On picture above: International Space Station.