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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.

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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