Image 1 - China Launches Tiangong-1 Space Lab
September 29, 2011

China Launches Tiangong-1 Space Lab

China´s Tiangong-1 space laboratory was launched from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert on Thursday at 21:16 local time (13:16 GMT) aboard the Long March 2F rocket, reports BBC News.

The rocket´s ascent took the spacecraft out over the Pacific and into orbit where it will be stationed roughly 218 miles above Earth. The 35-foot-long module will be unmanned for now, but China does plan to send its astronauts to the station sometime next year.

This marks China´s first launch of a space laboratory. The immediate plan is for the module to operate self-sufficiently, except for monitoring from the ground. The country then plans to launch another unmanned spacecraft -- Shenzhou 8 -- within a few weeks, and attempt to link both spacecraft together.

Tiangong-1 is expected to remain in orbit for two years, being used by Chinese scientists and astronauts to practice rendezvous and docking techniques needed to construct bigger structures in space.

“Rendezvous and docking is a sophisticated technology,” said Yang Hong, Tiangong-1´s chief designer. “It´s also essential to building China's own space station,” he told China Central Television.

The country has vowed that it will have a fully operational space station by the end of 2020.

If the Tiangong-1 mission proves successful overall and life-support systems aboard the lab remain stable, manned missions to the lab next year could see Chinese astronauts visiting the module for up to two weeks at a time. These missions could include China´s first female astronauts, said Wu Ping, a spokesman for China´s manned space program.

This program could leave China with the largest mannable presence in space. Currently, that title belongs to the International Space Station (ISS), which is a partnership of the US, European, Russian, Japanese and Canadian space programs.

But the high costs of ferrying supplies and astronauts to the ISS has left the future of the station unsettled. When current commitments end in 2020, Russian scientists have proposed that it is left to fall into the ocean.

Beijing claims its space station program is cheaper. While Russia and the US initially practiced docking by sending up two vessels for each trial, China said it saves money by leaving one in space for an extended time.

“Tiangong-1´s cost is similar to that of a spaceship. We only need four launches and can experiment with rendezvous and docking three times,” space program chief designer Zhou Jianping told The China Daily.

Fu Song, a professor at the School of Aerospace in Tsinghua University, said although The US is way ahead of China in the space race, “there is the advantage for latecomers.” He said that the “cost is less and wrong turns can be avoided. If the Tiangong is successful, it will be a significant symbol for the Chinese space industry.”

Though based on Russian technology, Chinese scientists say they have enhanced navigation and other systems. The country also has ambitions for a moon landing and deep-space exploration. The Tiangong-1 mission will provide a lot of experience and preparations for both, said Ping.

There has been talk about China becoming involved in the ISS project, and because of the many Russian technologies that China has implemented in its own space program, it certain has the capability to dock its Shenzhou vehicles with the complex.

Europe has argued that additional partners could help spread the cost of running the extremely expensive station. But political differences between China and the US have appeared to keep such an involvement unlikely.

“These are decisions that have to be taken by the whole ISS partnership; everyone has to agree,” said Karl Bergquist from the European Space Agency's (ESA) international relations department.

“You also have to see whether it is something which would interest a country like China, given their ambitions in space. They have advanced so far in their plans that they will probably go ahead and develop their own station,” he told BBC News.

“I think the Chinese want to prove to themselves and others that they are on a level,” said Thomas Reiter, the director of human spaceflight at ESA, while at a seminar this month at the London School of Economics. “At that point, it becomes a moment for discussion on greater co-operation. We are certainly drifting towards each other.”

Europe´s engagement with China, for the most part, falls in the area of space science. ESA participated in the Double Star mission, a pair of satellites sent into orbit to study the Sun's interaction with the Earth's magnetic field. There is also co-operative work in Earth observation, assisting the Chinese with the development of applications to interpret satellite data. And manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, based in the UK, announced recently that it would be making three high-resolution imaging spacecraft for the purpose of mapping China.

The Tiangong-1 project is part of a three-step space strategy for China. The first step occurred in 2003 when the country sent its first astronaut into space. The third step will be the completion of a fully operational space station by 2020.

China is investing billions of dollars in its space program. It has a strong space science effort underway, with two orbiters already launched to the Moon. A third mission is expected to put a rover on the lunar surface. And the country is also deploying its own satellite-navigation system known as BeiDou (Compass).

And bigger rockets are also in the works. The Long March 5 will be capable of putting more than 20 tons into low-Earth orbit, which will be necessary if the country plans to put a larger space station into orbit.


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