China laid out plans for its future in space on Tuesday, unveiling details of an ambitious new space station to be built in orbit within a decade.
The project, which one Nasa adviser describes as a "potent political symbol", is the latest phase in China's rapidly developing space programme. It is less than a decade since China put a human into orbit for the first time, and three years since its first spacewalk.
The space station will weigh around 60 tonnes and consist of a core module with two laboratory units for experiments, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. Officials have asked the public to suggest names and symbols for the unit and for a cargo spacecraft that will serve it.
Professor Jiang Guohua, from the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, said the facility would be designed to last for around a decade and support three astronauts working on microgravity science, space radiation biology and astronomy.
The project heralds a shift in the balance of power among spacefaring nations.
In June, the US space agency, Nasa, will mothball its whole fleet of space shuttles, in a move that will leave only the Russians capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The $100bn outpost is itself due to fly only until 2020, but may be granted a reprieve until 2028.
Bernardo Patti, head of the space station programme at the European Space Agency (Esa), said: "China is a big country. It is a powerful country, and they are getting richer and richer. They want to establish themselves as key players in the international arena."
John Logsdon, a Nasa adviser said China's plans would give it homegrown expertise in human space flight.