June 10, 2012
Mid-June Targeted For Chinese Manned Spacecraft Launch
China is apparently planning to launch a manned spacecraft sometime in June, with state media reports suggesting that the vehicle will be docking with a mobile space lab that has been orbiting Earth since last September.
CNN, citing information obtained from the Xinhua news agency, said that the Shenzhou-9 was moved to a launch platform Saturday in order to allow scientists to conduct tests prior to the launch, which is scheduled for the middle of this month.
It will be the first time that Chinese astronauts have attempted manual docking procedures, and if successful, they will become the third country to have done so, joining the United States and Russia in what MIT Associated Professor Taylor Fravel has called a "very exclusive club."
According to the Associated Press (AP), three astronauts will take part in the mission, and officials with the Chinese space program have suggested that the crew could include one or more female members. The trio of crew members will dock and live in the Tiangong 1 orbital module, but officials did not discuss how long the mission is scheduled to last.
"China's space program has made steady progress since a 2003 launch that made it only the third nation to put a man in space on its own. Two more manned missions have followed, one including a space walk," the AP reported on Saturday. "China completed its first space rendezvous in November when the unmanned Shenzhou 8 docked with the Tiangong 1 by remote control. Tiangong 1 was launched on Sept. 29."
"Over the next few days, scientists will test the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, the Long March 2F rocket and ground systems, Xinhua said, citing the spokesman," they added. "During the flight, one crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 'as a precautionary measure in case of emergency' while the others enter Tiangong 1, Xinhua said."
The Chinese space program is currently scheduled to attempt a pair of docking missions prior to the end of 2012, according to wire service reports.
They also are planning to complete a 60-ton manned space station, far smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), in an estimated eight years' time. Beijing officials opted to undertake the project after repeatedly being blocked in their efforts to join the ISS program, primarily due to U.S. concerns over technology sharing with what the AP calls "an economic and political rival."