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The Chinese government has moved to damp speculation that it will establish a manned space station by 2020.

The BBC and AFP report this morning that rocket designer Long Lehao (of the People's Republic space programme) told the China Daily of plans to orbit a "a small-scale 20-tonne workshop" by 2020. This was headlined "China plans space station in 2020".

China has come from nowhere in recent years to join the top three space nations. It has now put a man in space, shot down a satellite, and placed a probe in orbit round the Moon. A manned space station would be another coveted badge of technical achievement; and the necessary heavy-lift rocket tech could have pleasing effects on the small, antiquated Chinese ICBM force too.

However, it now appears that everyone may have got a little carried away. Xinhua reports that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) denies any timetable for a space station.

"China will focus on manned space flight and lunar exploration in the near future," CNSA spokesman Li Guoping told reporters. "No plans issued by the government so far have said we are going to develop a space station."

The Xinhua report states that the PRC is embarking on its "second stage" of spaceflight, to include an orbiting "space laboratory attended to by humans for short periods". This will be used to gain expertise in spacewalks, docking manoeuvres, etc. Presumably, this is what Long Lehao actually meant.

There will be a third stage featuring "a permanent space station and a space engineering system," but the CNSA very firmly did not say when. ®

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