Shenzhou-9 Has Docked With Tiangong-1 Space Lab
June 18, 2012

Shenzhou-9 Has Docked With Tiangong-1 Space Lab

China, being only the third country to launch its own manned mission into space, made history Monday with its first successful manned docking mission at 6:07 a.m. UTC (2:07 p.m. Beijing time), just two days after it sent 3 astronauts, including the first Chinese woman, into space aboard its Shenzhou-9 spacecraft.

Shenzhou-9 successfully docked with China´s inaugural orbiting space lab Tiangong-1, which has been in orbit since last year. China state television showed live shots of the craft linking up with the station´s "Heavenly Palace" module. The docking was fully automated, with computers in control of the entire event.

The three passengers -- 33-year-old female Liu Yang, 46-year-old Commander Jing Haipeng, and 42-year-old flight engineer Liu Wang -- had to wait for pressure to equalize inside both vessels before they could open the hatches, and then waited another two hours before entering the station. Liu Yang held back in the capsule in case of an emergency.

As the two men entered Tiangong-1 for the first time, images showed them waving into the camera and beginning to check onboard systems. After 20 minutes, Liu Yang followed suit and after all three were onboard together, they posed for a group wave for the camera.

This marked China´s fourth manned mission and follows last year´s successful unmanned Shenzhou-8 mission that rendezvoused and docked with Tiangong-1 on November 2, 2011, which has been accompanied by a whirlwind of national pride. While still early on in its space capabilities, this successful manned docking mission proves that China is on its way to becoming a space superpower, rivaling that of the US and Russia.

China´s progress has been extremely remarkable, especially since it has only been 9 years since it put its first person, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003.

During the current mission, a range of scientific experiments are planned, including a number of medical tests the taikonauts (China´s version of astronauts) will undertake to better understand the effects of weightlessness on the human body. The crew will also attempt a manned docking while aboard the station, where they will uncouple the vehicle from the lab, retreat to a safe distance and then attempt to manually dock with Tiangong-1.

During the 13-day visit to the lab, only two of the taikonauts will sleep aboard Tiangong-1, while the third sleeps on Shenzhou-9. Tiangong is equipped with exercise equipment to allow the team to maintain their health. The module also has a waste recycling facility, a medical station with health monitoring equipment, clothing for all crew, and fire extinguishers.

China is already thinking ahead as it discussed its Shenzhou-10 mission scheduled for some time next year. Tiangong-1 has been planned to remain in orbit for two years, and next year´s mission will likely be China´s last to the Tiangong-1 lab. The country plans to launch a permanently manned space lab later this decade.

The proposed 60+ ton station would be considerably smaller than the 400+ ton International Space Station operated jointly by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, but will be much larger than the prototype lab that is currently in orbit.

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