This artist's illustration from a China space agency video shows the Tiangong 1 space laboratory, a prototype module for the country's planned space station. Image: China Manned Space Engineering Office
China aims to establish a large manned space station within the next decade, officials have said, and the latest reports suggest that this outpost could host not only Chinese astronauts, but European spaceflyers as well.
A plan is afoot for China and Europe to cooperate on the venture, which might see the European Space Agency (ESA) building technologies, including a rendezvous and docking system, for the station, in exchange for opportunities for its astronauts to visit the facility.
China plans to have the space station running by 2020. Both the station and China's manned spacecraft Shenzhou could use ESA's International Berthing and Docking Mechanism (IBDM), because of a problem with the Russian system the Chinese have been using until now.
China's Shenzhou and Tiangong-1 space laboratory, a test module already in orbit, use a modified version of Russia's Androgynous Peripheral Attach System (APAS). APAS was developed for the 1975 Apollo Soyuz Test Project and is used on the International Space Station (ISS). [How China's First Space Station Will Work (Infographic)]
An unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft docked with Tiangong-1 for the first time in November 2011, and the docking mechanism didn't work exactly as planned, some say.
"It was originally bouncing off," Bob Chesson, an ESA human spaceflight advisor, told SPACE.com. "Essentially they have to ram this [Shenzhou] thing in and they are very worried that if you assemble a station like that, you basically will have all sorts of structure fracture mechanics problems, that type of thing."
The Shenzhou spacecraft is not heavy enough to activate the APAS docking system correctly, Chesson said, so it had to be rammed forcefully to make a connection.
Chesson traveled to Beijing with ESA's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain and talked with the China Manned Space Engineering Office.
"Our director general has made some noises that he wants us to get involved with [the Chinese space station program]," Chesson said. "The Chinese, we had them over and showed them [the IBDM] and they were very interested because they are using the modified APAS system."
To discuss whether the IBDM system might work better for the Chinese space station, ESA officials sponsored a working seminar to collaborate with Chinese space officials, Chesson said.
Chesson has been a senior advisor to Thomas Reiter, the German-born former astronaut and head of ESA's human spaceflight directorate and operations. He spoke recently about the collaboration with China during a presentation to the Cambridge branch of the UK's Royal Aeronautical Society.
The IBDM is system to allow different countries' spacecraft to dock and berth with each other, despite their different designs.
Originally developed by ESA and NASA for the X-38 program, a prototype crewed spaceplane that was cancelled in 2002. The X-38, also known as the Crew Rescue Vehicle (CRV), would have allowed a seven-person International Space Station crew to escape the station.
The US space agency ended its involvement in IBDM when the X-38 program ended. Now IBDM will form part of the ESA-China cooperation, as rendezvous and docking is one of three working groups set up by Chesson for collaboration between the two agencies. The other two working groups focus on crew training and the exchange of payload facilities and experiments.