Beijing - Jul 01, 2002
The next test flight of China's Shenzhou manned spacecraft may occur as soon as this September, according to various pieces of information that the Chinese media has reported since April.
On May 20 Beijing Entertainment News said in a brief report that the microsats in the project dubbed "OlympiadSat" would be launched piggyback along with Shenzhou-4 (SZ-4, Shenzhou means "Magic Vessel" or "Divine Vessel").
A month earlier on April 19, the weekly aerospace publication China Space News reported that the "OlympiadSat" microsats would be sent into space around September.
This suggests that the fourth mission of Shenzhou may take place in as little as three months from now.
Immediately after SZ-3 successfully completed its primary mission, jubilant space officials said that SZ-4 would be launched towards the end of the year. The SZ-4 mission will remain unmanned.
In view of what space officials regarded as a highly successful SZ-3 mission, a hint of an earlier launch of SZ-4 came a month and a half ago.
During a public lecture at the opening of the weeklong National Science and Technology Week here on May 18, Deputy Chief Designer of SZ-3 Zheng Songhui said: "The SZ-3 launch is very successful. This means that the manned launch timeframe won't be too long. Therefore it is possible in a relatively shorter time to launch SZ-4."
More recently another senior official with the Shenzhou project confirmed that preparation for the SZ-4 mission was well underway.
Qin Wenbo, the youngest Deputy Commander-in-Chief in the Shenzhou project, told China News Service on June 4 that he and his team had been busy working on prelaunch activities of SZ-4.
The 36-year-old Qin had nearly a decade of experience with the manned spacecraft project. In 1993 when Qin was working as a director of software design on a guided missile ground facility project at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST, formerly known as the Shanghai Bureau of Astronautics), he was reassigned to the Shenzhou project. After SZ-1 completed its historic mission in Nov. 1999, Qin was named the Deputy Commander-in-Chief.
As one of the key institutions in the Shenzhou project, SAST is responsible for the research and construction of the Propulsion Module and the electrical, propulsion and communication subsystems.
The purpose of launching the two "OlympiadSat" microsats along the SZ-4 mission is to promote youth involvement and understanding of science and technology, particularly in aerospace.
Once launched, youths across China will have opportunities to participate in operating the microsats and using them for scientific observations.
If the "OlympiadSat" microsats are indeed going to be launched with Shenzhou, it may be the first piggyback launch that the Changzheng-2F (Long March-2F) launcher carries out.
Prior to the launch of SZ-3, Chinese media had reported that the CZ-2F launcher would piggyback launch a satellite on the flight. The piggyback launch never occurred.
In an interview with the China News Service on April 4 Wang Liheng, former Director of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and a former Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Shenzhou project, clarified that there was never a plan to piggyback launch a satellite on the SZ-3 mission.
But on March 11 Beijing Youth Daily published an interview with Zhuang Fenggan, Chairman of Science and Technology Committee of CASC and a consultant on advanced technology at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), who said, "This [SZ-3] launch itself also takes a satellite up. This is the difference with the SZ-1 and SZ-2 missions."
Conflicting messages aside the CZ-2F launcher did deploy a payload, though not a satellite, on the SZ-3 mission. During the CZ-2F ascent the emergency escape system payload was deployed and tested for the first time. Space officials did not announce such a test before the launch.
With the SZ-4 mission, space officials said that the basic conditions of the spacecraft would be the same as SZ-3. SZ-4 will be flown in conditions that are ready for a manned mission. The primary objectives are to further test the reliability and safety of the vehicle.
However, there will be major changes to the content of the science experiments on the SZ-4 Orbital Module. Space officials have yet to disclose the details of these science experiments.
Although there is no additional official information on the SZ-4 mission, unidentified sources have previously speculated that the upcoming mission could possibly see some drastic changes to the mission scenario.
The unidentified sources told the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po on March 26 that mission officials might attempt a splashdown as the next step to end the mission; now that touchdowns at the designated landing site in the Steppes in Inner Mongolia have been successfully demonstrated.
The sources also said that the next major modification to the Shenzhou spacecraft might be an addition of a docking unit to the front of the Orbital Module. This would allow a test docking of two space vehicles, a necessary step to pass in order to achieve China's long-term goal of orbiting its own space station.
Very little is known about what capability China has and its readiness in mounting a rendezvous and docking exercise. Perhaps a rendezvous attempt between SZ-4 and the SZ-3 Orbital Module is not entirely inconceivable. But an attempt to dock the two vehicles is only possible if a docking unit has already been installed on the SZ-3 Orbital Module.
China has demonstrated the ability to perform multiple maneuvers of the Shenzhou Orbital Module and maintain its orbit and attitude over an extended period, particularly in the 260-day extended mission of the SZ-2 Orbital Module last year.
If SZ-4 is launched in September, it is likely that the SZ-3 Orbital Module would remain in space at that time since space officials have said that on-board experiments would operate for about six months in the extended phase of the SZ-3 mission.
The scenario of a proximity rendezvous of SZ-4 with the SZ-3 Orbital Module is therefore not completely out of the question.
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Shenzhou-3 Orbital Module Continues Mission
Beijing - Jun 28, 2002
The Shenzhou-3 (SZ-3) Orbital Module is carrying out its extended mission nominally under the watchful eyes of mission controllers here, reported China Space News (CSN) last Friday (June 21).
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