The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) recently outlined plans to construct a kilometres-long spacecraft. The five-year project aims to address the “urgent need” to build the massive vessel; included are plans to assess the viability of building large vessels while in space and the development of lightweight structures for the craft.
The massive craft was described as a critical piece of equipment for the “future use of space resources” and the exploration of the wider universe, in an outline published by the foundation.
The funding to research the futuristic venture was granted by the Ministry of Science and Technology. It was chosen from several other projects put forward by the NSFC’s mathematics and physics departments. Each project’s funding was capped at $2.3 million, according to The South China Morning Post.
The outline for the project suggests the majority of the research will be dedicated to developing lightweight materials for the spacecraft as it would lessen the number of launches required to assemble the vessel in low-orbit. Such a large structure could never feasibly be launched wholly, hence the choice of modular construction.
Another problem facing researchers once the required spaceship building blocks are in orbit is how to stop them from drifting apart, colliding with one another, or twisting or deforming. There is also the issue of managing the craft’s construction in zero gravity.
To contextualise the magnitude of such a large project, another modular spacecraft currently under construction, the Tiangong Space Station, commenced construction in April this year and is only expected to be completed in 2022.
When complete, the 100-metric-ton vessel will have required 11 separate launches, according to Space.com.
The International Space Station, built by 16 countries and roughly four times the size of Tiangong at metric tons, required 42 separate assembly flights. Currently, the football-field-sized structure is the largest man-made structure in space but, if China’s mega-spaceship dreams were realized, would be dwarfed by a significant margin.
China’s space ambitions have ramped up significantly in the last decade. In early 2019, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) landed on the far side of the moon, becoming the first space program to do so. This year they successfully landed their Zhurong Rover on Mars, becoming the second nation to achieve the feat.
Currently in development is CNSA’s next-generation Long March 9 super-heavy carrier rocket, expected to debut for the space programme at the end of the decade.