China space station test modules dock in historic rendezvous

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Shenzhou-8 craft reaches Tiangong-1 section that was already in orbit and attaches itself successfully

An animation of the Tiangong-1 module and Shenzhou-8 spacecraft as they dock is shown on a monitor at the mission's Beijing control centre. Photograph: AP/Xinhua

Two unmanned Chinese spacecraft have docked successfully and are orbiting the Earth together in a step towards China having its own manned space station.

The Shenzhou-8 craft that was launched on Tuesday docked with the already orbiting Tiangong-1 module, said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s manned space programme. The assembly had orbited Earth several times, with onboard instruments working normally, she said.

The US and Russia are the only other countries to have mastered space docking. It was “a milestone success and sets a sound foundation for continued missions”, Wu said.

The joint assembly will fly for another 12 days doing tests, then a second docking will be followed by two days’ flight. Shenzhou-8 is scheduled to return to Earth on 17 November.

“Our aim is to try our best to perform multiple tests within one launch so as to maximise our benefits through limited launches,” Wu said.

China launched its own space station programme after being turned away in its repeated attempts to join the 16-nation International Space Station – largely because the United States is wary of the Chinese space programme’s military links.

Experts see no explicit military function for the Chinese space station.

In terms of technology the launch of the Tiangong-1 places China about where the US was in the 1960s during the Gemini programme. But experts say China progresses further than the US did with each launch.

Two more docking missions with Tiangong-1 model are planned next year, one of them manned. China would set up a space lab by 2016, Wu said, and its space station would be launched in three sections between 2020 and 2022.

At about 60 tonnes when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station, which is expected to continue operating until at least 2028.

Written by physicsgg

November 3, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Posted in SPACE

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