China is expected to launch another three shuttles in 2010 to build a small laboratory in space, a leader of the country's space program has revealed.
The three spacecraft - Shenzhou VIII, Shenzhou IX and Shenzhou X - are expected to enter space with launch intervals of less than a month of each other, according to Qi Faren, the chief designer of the Shenzhou VII manned spaceship.
Qi's remarks came just as China is in the final stages to prepare for the blastoff of Shenzhou VII, the country's third manned spaceship that will conduct the first Chinese space walk some time between Thursday and next Tuesday.
Shenzhou VIII and Shenzhou IX would be unmanned, Qi, who is also the chief designer of series from Shenzhou I to Shenzhou V, told the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post.
The two space shuttles would have laboratory equipment, a key to realize China's ambition of building a space station in 2020, the newspaper quoted Qi as saying Sunday.
They will be used to test whether the space environment is suitable for a long-term stay and work for people, according to Qi.
If connection between the two aircraft is successful, Shenzhou X will blast off with astronauts heading for the outer-space laboratories.
Qi dismissed speculation that Shenzhou VIII will be launched in the southern Hainan Province, where China is building another launch site. Construction of this site is due for completion in 2012.
Meanwhile, six astronauts, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, the three named to take the Shenzhou VII task and their back-ups, moved to the Jiuquan Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China's Gansu Province about noon yesterday.
Rain and strong wind hit the center early yesterday, raising concerns that severe weather conditions may affect the launch of Shenzhou VII.
One of the three astronauts onboard Shenzhou VII will step out of the capsule and conduct the history-making space walk that will be telecast live.
In 2003, China became the third country in the world - after the United States and Russia - to send a person into orbit. It was followed with a two-man mission in 2005.
The country aimed to become a leader in space technology by building a comprehensive aerospace industry by 2015, China's Aerospace Science and Technology Corp said in July.