BEIJING, April 21 (Xinhua) -- China will launch a core module belonging to its first space station around 2018, according to a senior engineer with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. on Thursday.
Two space labs will be launched later and dock with the core module, "Tianhe-1," said Wang Zhongyang, spokesperson with a key research institute attached to the corporation.
Assembly of a prototype of the core module is currently underway, Wang said.
Construction on the space station is expected to finish around 2022, he said.
The space station will consist of the core module, and the two attached labs, each weighing about 20 tonnes.
If the International Space Station, which has extended its service, is retired by 2024, China's new space station will be the only operational one in outer space, Wang said.
According to Wang, the next few years will see some exciting advances in the space station program. This year, China will launch the second orbiting space lab Tiangong-2 into space and Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, which will carry two astronauts and dock with Tiangong-2.
In 2017, the country's first cargo ship Tianzhou-1, which literally means "heavenly vessel," will be sent to dock with Tiangong-2 and test some of the important systems.
China launched its first space lab, Tiangong-1, in September 2011 and conducted two dockings with the module the following two years.
The Tiangong-1, which ran for four-and-a-half years, has fulfilled its mission and ended service in March. It still remains in orbit and will descend gradually in the coming months until it burns up in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Chinese scientists are testing a new and smaller-sized re-entry capsule for space missions and are designing a "Xuntian" optical module, similar to the Hubble space telescope launched in 1990.
Wang offered no further details on the new telescope, only that it would be sent into space around 2022.
Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's manned space program, told Xinhua in March said the telescope would feature a 2-meter-diameter lens.
With the same precision as Hubble but a field of view that is 300 times larger, the telescope could capture 40 percent of space within ten years, Zhou said.
It would orbit close to the Chinese space station, meaning that astronauts may quickly service any problems whenever it needs repair or maintenance.