Shenzhou: Between Two Launches
Sydney - July 24, 2001
At a time when the flight of Shenzhou 3 seems to be imminent, itís worthwhile reviewing the ongoing reports of its predecessor. We stand between two launches in this interesting human spaceflight program, and like the ancient god Janus, Shenzhou watchers have one face looking back at the past, and another looking toward the future.
More than six months ago, Chinaís Shenzhou 2 spacecraft lifted off on a mission that is still technically operational today. Shenzhouís descent module returned to Earth after a week in orbit, but the orbital module of the vehicle remained aloft, and is apparently still returning useful scientific data.
After several months of incredible silence about this mission, China finally released a few scant details on the flight, stating that data from the large collection of experiments on board the mission had been examined. Possibly the most interesting result, from the perspective of contemporary astronomy, is Chinaís ongoing observations of the mysterious gamma ray bursts that sporadically appear in the cosmos.
The amount of information that has been released on Shenzhou 2 is quite modest, but itís enough to prompt a half-time report on this highly elusive space program.
Probably the most significant deduction from Chinaís latest statement is the fact that Shenzhouís descent module was not destroyed on landing. Other journalists have speculated that the module may have crashed to Earth, basing their assumption on a sudden and unexpected news blackout that appeared immediately after re-entry.
Media coverage of Shenzhou 2 was quite extensive during the mission, but this ended in a short and somewhat abrupt statement announcing the end of the flight. No photographs of the Shenzhou 2 descent module after landing have apparently been released.
A source who was in China at the time of the mission has reported that domestic coverage followed a similar pattern. Detailed media coverage of Shenzhou 2 suffered a communications blackout around the world.
Why the sudden policy change? A cover-up of a problem was one possibility, but there could be other explanations. Perhaps someone in a government bureaucracy felt that too much was being said about Shenzhou without approval.
Not only was coverage of the mission extensive, but various scientists and officials connected with Chinaís space program were surprisingly vocal in the weeks before the flight, speaking of everything from space stations to moon landings as possible goals.
Replacing one extreme with another, a blanket ban on media statements could have been suddenly imposed. Itís also possible that China initially feared that Shenzhou had actually suffered a problem during descent, possibly due to a loss of telemetry.
Once the spacecraft had been recovered, it could have been difficult to overcome the inertia of a closed-mouth policy. An intermediate possibility is that the spacecraft and its payload were recovered, but Shenzhou could have suffered a hard landing.
It would be possible to say that the spacecraft had landed successfully and that the experiments had been recovered, but the exterior of the spacecraft could have suffered some sort of minor physical damage that would show up in photographs.
We will probably never know what prompted the media blackout, but it seems reasonable to expect that that the landing was fairly successful.
A problem with Shenzhou 2ís descent would be disappointing, but China should not really be too concerned about this. Shenzhou 2 was a test mission, designed to expose potential problems.
From what is known for certain, the flight should be regarded as a general success. The Long March 2F launch vehicle performed successfully. Shenzhou 2, the first fully-outfitted version of this spacecraft, carried out its orbital mission successfully and returned to Earth.
The orbital module continues on its marathon mission. If a problem appeared at touchdown, China had plenty of opportunity to fix it. Itís worth remembering that the first Shenzhou mission made an unquestionably soft landing in Innner Mongolia, which suggests that the basic design of the recovery system is sound.
Itís unlikely that more details will be released about Shenzhou 2 by the Chinese. Observers are now waiting for the flight of Shenzhou 3. When will it happen?
China waited more than a year after Shenzhouís maiden flight before it launched again, but it is probable that the next mission will not take so long.
The leap from Shenzhou 1 to 2 was much larger than China will need to make from 2 to 3. Shenzhou 1 was reportedly a stripped-down vehicle that lacked many of the components that would be needed on an operational mission.
Shenzhou 2 contained so many improvements, and attempted so much more on its mission, that a large delay is understandable. If Shenzhou 2 experienced landing problems, then itís likely that engineers would want to extensively test the recovery systems before the next flight. But this would involve just a few sub-systems.
Shenzou 3 could launch very soon, if media reports are to be believed. Shenzhou 3 will probably carry another set of experiments, but it is too early for Shenzhou to carry a human crew.
One event that wonít matter to Shenzhou 3, but will certainly influence Shenzhou in the long-term, is the fact that Beijing has won the right to host the 2008 Olympics.
Itís generally expected that Shenzhou will be fully operational before the games begin, but the possibility of promoting the spacecraft during the games and associated activities could strengthen the perceived value of the program. Will China even stage a live-to-orbit broadcast during the opening ceremony?
Dr Morris Jones has recently completed a PhD in journalism on the Internet at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He holds a BSc degree in physics with computer science and a MA degree in journalism. He can be contacted at morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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China Preparing For Shenzhou III
Hong Kong (AFP) July 23, 2001
China is to launch its third unmanned spaceship soon to pave the way for sending the first Chinese astronaut into space next year, it was reported Monday.