Welcome Back Shenzhou
Sydney - Apr 2, 2002
After an apparently nominal mission, China's Shenzhou 3 spacecraft has returned to an apparently textbook touchdown. Chinese media coverage of the flight of Shenzhou 3 has been relatively good, compared to the generally secretive standards of previous missions.
We have been treated to media statements and photographs of the mission during its launch, orbital and descent phases. China has also leaked a few more details of the Shenzhou system itself. Much has been gained by the Chinese by carrying out this advanced mission, and a lot has also been gained by Shenzhou watchers. It's time to examine the implications of Shenzhou 3's successful return to Earth.
In my earlier report on Shenzhou 3, I pointed out how many ambiguities could be read into the statements issued by state media after the launch. China has since released some more information on Shenzhou, but this does little to inform external observers.
As Wei Long has reported in Space Daily, China has revealed some basic figures on the dimensions of the craft, along with a description of some of its principal features.
But this information adds little to our existing knowledge of Shenzhou. Most of this data had already been deduced by Western observers who studied images of the vehicle. Other quotes are just waffle, and only suggest that the spacecraft was being tested.
The most informative statement is probably the fact that Shenzhou 3 contains seats for three astronauts. This helps clarify speculation on the crew complement. Shenzhou's rather roomy dimensions caused some observers to suggest four people could be crammed into the descent module. This will probably not happen.
Coverage of Shenzhou 3 in orbit has been unprecedented, with porthole views of the Earth below. The beautiful imagery that has been released to the world is as much a product of technical advancement as China's media policies.
It's possible that communications links could not support this form of coverage on earlier missions, judging by the rather chunky video telemetry that was broadcast during the launch of Shenzhou 2.
More information on the Long March 2F launch vehicle used for the mission has also been supplied. China has stated that the escape system for the rocket was tested for the first time. This precise statement could be a clarification of China's earlier references to some sort of improvement to the rocket.
The recovery of Shenzhou 3 has been confirmed with official statements and some clear photography of the capsule sitting on terra firma. Shenzhou 3 seems to be in good condition, and the suite of experiments it contains is presumably undamaged. This coverage boosts the credibility of Shenzhou 3's recovery, but China has painted itself into a corner with regard to the recovery of Shenzhou 2.
It seems very peculiar that the first and third flights were accompanied by recovery photographs, but no such photography was released for Shenzhou 2. China could easily dampen speculation of a hard landing for that mission by releasing images, but has failed to do so.
There's really no stigma if the mission suffered problems, as Shenzhou 2 was a test mission, and both the United States and the Soviet Union suffered from plenty of embarrassments during their own testing phases. But it seems that China is unable or unwilling to reverse its previous policies.
Although Shenzhou 3 has apparently carried systems that did not appear on previous missions, it has reinforced confidence in many of the basic components that have flown before.
The Long March 2F has flown three times without failure. The Shenzhou spacecraft itself has performed almost nominally on three launches out of three, with the possibility of some recovery problems for the second mission. The overall performance record of this spacecraft is quite good.
It will be interesting to see if China reveals any more details of the mission or its payload in the future. This could come after the descent module and its contents are examined in Beijing.
The overall conclusion that must be drawn is that the Shenzhou program has probably solved the technical problems that caused the latest flight to be delayed for so long. We await the next mission with anticipation.
Morris Jones is a Sydney-based journalist. He can be contacted at morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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New Details Of Shenzhou And Its Launcher Revealed
Beijing - Apr 01, 2002
Perhaps as a sign of further maturity of the Chinese manned space program, new details of the Shenzhou manned spacecraft and its Changzheng-2F (Long March-2F) launcher appears in the March 27 issue of the Chinese-language weekly aerospace publication China Space News.
Shenzhou Mission Remains Under Tight Wraps
Sydney - Mar 26, 2002
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