Skip to main content

China will study how to build a massive spacecraft over a half-mile long

The Chinese government is inviting scientists to help build an enormous, 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) long spacecraft that it wants to construct in orbit. The wild concept is to build a giant orbiting craft the size of 10 city blocks from components sent up by rockets one piece at a time.

The concept is outlined in a project document from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (in the attachment titled “Guide for major projects of the Ministry of Mathematical Sciences”), which describes how the organization is looking for proposals for constructing an “ultra-large spacecraft with a size of one kilometer,” saying this goal represents “a major strategic aerospace equipment for the future use of space resources, exploration of the mysteries of the universe, and long-term living in orbit.”

A Long March-2F rocket.
The Long March-2F rocket that will launch three Chinese astronauts to a new space station in the country’s first crewed launch in five years. STR/Getty Images

The size and mass of such a spacecraft would obviously be huge, which would make it impossible to build and launch in one piece. Instead, the idea would be to design and construct modules that could each be launched individually and then assembled in orbit. Therefore the project is looking for two key factors: Firstly, a lightweight design to keep the number of required launches as low as possible, and secondly, a smart design that can be assembled easily in space.

This will be a five-year project to develop the concept, according to the South China Morning Post, and five projects will be selected for development at 15 million yuan ($2.3 million U.S.) each. This amount of funding presumably represents just the first step in researching the concept, as it is nowhere near enough to actually build and launch a spacecraft — even a tiny one. It must be for preliminary research only, to see whether such a concept is even feasible.

China has stepped into space exploration in a big way in recent years. In addition to its Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, which includes a rover that China landed successfully on Mars for the first time and which recently had its mission extended, there’s also its Chang’e 4 mission to the far side of the moon which brought home a sample of lunar rock for the first time in over 40 years. And perhaps most significantly, there is China’s new space station which had its first module put into orbit earlier this year, and which has already seen its first cargo mission and two spacewalks.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
China’s new space station, Tiangong, gets its third module
Shenzhou-14 astronauts Chen Dong (C), Liu Yang (L) and Cai Xuzhe waving inside the Mengtian lab module.

China continues to progress in building its own space station, named Tiangong. This week the third module of the new station arrived in orbit and was added to the station, and Chinese astronauts entered it for the first time.

This screen image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on November 3, 2022, shows the Shenzhou-14 astronauts Chen Dong (C), Liu Yang (L), and Cai Xuzhe waving inside the Mengtian lab module. The Shenzhou-14 astronauts successfully entered the Mengtian lab module of China's space station Tiangong at 3:12 p.m. (Beijing Time) on Thursday, according to the China Manned Space Agency. Sun Fengxiao/Xinhua

Read more
See how the night sky changes over a decade with this NASA time lapse
This mosaic is composed of images covering the entire sky, taken by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) as part of WISE’s 2012 All-Sky Data Release. By observing the entire sky, WISE can search for faint objects, like distant galaxies, or survey groups of cosmic objects.

You might think that the sky above is unchanging, at least on our human timescales, but that isn't the case. The night sky is active and changing, and it’s visible even on scales of years. Recently, NASA shared a time lapse animation showing the changes in the night sky over a period of more than a decade. Using data collected by the NEOWISE spacecraft, this all-sky map shows how the sky has changed between the launch of the spacecraft in 2009 and today.

NEOWISE: Revealing Changes in the Universe

Read more
How NASA is building an instrument to withstand the brutal conditions of Venus
An artists concept of DAVINCI+ on its way to Venus's surface.

Within the next decade, NASA's DAVINCI mission plans to send a descent sphere whistling through the atmosphere of Venus, collecting not only samples of its atmosphere but also high-resolution images of the planet's surface. But Venus is a deeply inhospitable place, with surface temperatures hotter than an oven and pressure so great it is like being 900 meters underwater. Now, NASA has shared more details about one of the DAVINCI mission's instruments and how it will collect vital data in this most challenging of environments.

DAVINCI's VASI instrument (Venus Atmospheric Structure Investigation) will be responsible for taking readings of the atmosphere as the descent sphere drops through the atmosphere on its 63-minute-long fall to the surface, including collecting data on temperature, pressure, wind speed and direction. This should help answer some long-open questions about the planet's atmosphere, particularly its lower atmosphere, which remains a mystery in many ways.

Read more