Successful Docking For China's Unmanned Mission
November 3, 2011

Successful Docking For China’s Unmanned Mission

China´s unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft docked successfully early on Thursday with the Tiangong-1 space lab module which had been orbiting Earth since September 30, taking the country to new heights in the hopes of giving its astronauts a long-term presence in space.

Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China´s manned space program, said the two units docked without any problems, and all onboard instruments are working properly. Prior to this successful mission, only Russia and the United States have mastered space docking. It was “a milestone success and sets a sound foundation for continued missions,” Wu said.

The two units will orbit the Earth together for another 12 days completing various tests, then a second docking will occur followed by another two days of joint flight. Shenzhou-8 is scheduled to return to Earth on November 17.

Chinese president Hu Jintao, currently in Europe at the G-20 summit, praised the country´s first space docking.

The successful docking marked the latest step in China´s three-part space exploration project. The first came when the nation achieved manned spaceflight in 2003. The current stage includes remote docking missions and spacewalks, and will include two more launches in 2012, with at least one being manned. Both 2012 launches are scheduled to dock with Tiangong-1 as well. In the third stage, China plans to launch a long-term space station as early as 2020.

“Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space program,” President Hu told the Xinhua news agency.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and other top officials were at Beijing Aerospace Control Center to watch the remote docking procedure, said Xinhua.

China´s space program has been entirely home-grown, by state-owned and private companies. It decided to launch its own space program after being repeatedly denied acceptance into the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS) program, largely due to the US´s concerns that Chinese links its space program to its military.

Experts see no specific military presence nor function within the Chinese space station.

But China´s space program is not very transparent at all, said Morris Jones, a space analyst based in Sydney, Australia. “The Chinese have an obsession with secrecy when it comes to their space program.”

The Tiangong-1 space module has two large telescopes directed at the Earth that can photograph anything on the surface. These are probably used for some military purposes, Jones said.

Currently, China is about where the US was in the 1960s during the Gemini program. But experts say China progresses further than the US did with each successive launch.

“Within only seven or eight years, China's space experts have completed what their foreign counterparts took three to four decades to achieve,” said Wang Yongzhi, chief designer of previous Shenzhou craft, according to the New China News Agency.

But, by the time China launches a full space station in 2020-2022, it will be considerably smaller than the ISS. 


Image Caption: Artist representation of Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou 8 on final approach. Credits: China Manned Space Engineering Office


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