China will launch a prototype of its space station later this week

China rallied hard to become a part of the US-led, international partnership that owns and operates the International Space Station, but was ultimately turned down. Not one to be left out, China decided to go ahead and build its own manned space station — and later this week, the country will take a major step toward seeing this project become reality.

The country's Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace," which we talked about in our Fall Science preview, is scheduled for liftoff on either the 29th or 30th of this month.

But China isn't sending astronauts to space just yet; The 8.5-ton Tiangong 1 module will allow China to practice autonomous rendezvous and docking protocols aboard a second unmanned spacecraft (due to launch later this year) in preparation for when they begin assembling a final, manned space base around 2020.

And even though China's space station is slated to be just a fraction of the size and cost of the current ISS, China's plans have been eliciting some interesting responses from within NASA.

China will launch a prototype of its space station later this week

"In my opinion, China understands what it takes to be a great power. We have written the script for them," said former NASA administrator Michael Griffin at a hearing before a NASA oversight committee last week.

"They are a near-peer competitor of ours and I would worry very much about the future of this nation if we were not — and if we were not seen by all — to be a world leader," he said.

"When the Chinese can reach the moon and we cannot, I don't see why any other nation would regard us as a world leader."

[Via China Manned Space Engineering, Discovery News, and SPACE.com]

All images via CMSE