On Tuesday, the China National Space Administration successfully launched a rocket carrying its unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft into low-earth orbit, where it is in position to rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-1 module launched in late September, testing the procedures needed to link-up the various components of China’s planned space station.
The launch, which was broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV), and the subsequent docking are being closely observers within the country and around the world, as the mission marks an important milestone in China’s manned space ambitions and a new frontier for the country..
“Since we have never conducted a similar test before and the system is so complicated, we have many unknowns,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space, in an interview with Xinhua (via Space Daily). “It is highly risky.” The margin of error in docking the two craft is no greater than 20 centimeters.
China is approaching the orbital docking issue from the opposite way that the U.S. did when astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott achieved history’s first physical link-up of two spacecraft in orbit, back in 1966.
The docking of the Shenzhou-8 to the Tiangong-1 will be umanned and automated, echoing the world’s first automated spacecraft docking by the Soviet Union in 1967.
The U.S., however, isn’t lending China any assistance on its space ventures and Russia has provided minimal support in the form of equipment such as space suits, forcing China to rely, for the most part, on their growing space-industry technologies.
“We can never count on other countries to sell their mature technologies to us, so we have to rely on our own,” Zhou told Xinhua.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is partnering with China to conduct experiments on the linked spacecraft, including exposing “plants, nematodes, bacteria and human cancer cells” to zero gravity and then parachuting these back to earth for examination.
Shenzhou 8 was naturally preceded by Shenzhou 1 through 7. All the craft are named after a nickname for China itself, “Divine Land,” (“Divine craft”) and share some of the same general design features - three modules (descent, service and orbital), solar panels, a propulsion system and autonomous controls- and are generally similar to the Russian Soyuz, but various improvements have made to each successive craft following the launch of the unmanned Shenzhou 1 in 1999.
The last Shenzhou launched prior to Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-7, launched in 2008 carrying taikonauts Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng. The mission saw China’s first successful space walk.
The Shenzhou-8 docking procedure seems to be on target, with the spacecraft already opening its solar panels and completing its first change of orbit on Tuesday. The craft is scheduled to conduct several more rocket burns to get it into place to dock with the Tiangong-1 200 miles above the Earth.