China sends mixed signals on space station plans

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BEIJING, Nov 7 (Reuters) China, the third country to put a man into space on its own, plans to launch a space station by 2020, one of its top rocket scientists said today, prompting an official denial that left any plans unclear.

The space station -- potentially the world's second -- was planned as a ''small-scale 20-tonne space workshop'', the China Daily quoted Long Lehao, a leading designer of the country's Long March 3A launcher, as saying.

''It is the first time a timetable has been made public for the building of the first space station, the third and final step of the country's current manned space programme,'' Long said.

But a space official later used the official Xinhua news agency to curtly deny any firm plans.

''China at present has not decided on developing a space station,'' Li Guoping, spokesman for the China National Space Administration, told Xinhua.

Chang'e 1, China's first lunar probe, entered its working orbit today after a two-week journey to the moon, Xinhua said.

The orbit is the probe's final destination, where it is programmed to carry out scientific exploration work and stay on the job for at least a year.

The so-far-successful lunar launch has fuelled an outpouring of patriotic propaganda about the rising nation's stake in space -- and it may also have prompted Long to speak more ambitiously than cautious officials wanted.

Long said he was optimistic about the space station plan because China had made progress developing a new family of rocket launchers.

The world's only operational space station is the 400-tonne International Space Station, a joint work of 16 nations -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and 11 countries from the European Space Agency.

In 2003, China became the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a man into space aboard its own rocket.

In October 2005, it sent two men into orbit and now plans a space walk by 2008 and hopes to put a man on the moon within 15 years.

China's space plans have won praise but also face scrutiny.

Fears of a potential space arms race with the United States and other powers have mounted since it destroyed one of its own weather satellites using a ground-based missile in January.

REUTERS PD HS1431

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