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Shenzhou 5's Ongoing Mission

Front page headlines and images from Chinese newspapers 16 October 2003 show astronaut Yang Liwei waving ahead of his historic 15 October space flight. The re-entry of Shenzhou V, China's first manned spacecraft, returned to Earth in the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia with Yang reported to be in good health and the mission announced a success. AFP Photo
by Morris Jones
Sydney - Oct 16, 2003
The safe return to Earth of Yang Liwei has completed the most important goal of the Shenzhou 5 mission. China has launched an astronaut and returned him safely. From the images and comments released by Chinese news agencies, it would seem that Shenzhou 5 has enjoyed a flawless flight.

Yang is obviously in good health and good spirits, which demonstrates much about the performance of the spacecraft during its orbital phase and its dangerous re-entry and descent phase. The speedy recovery of Yang also shows that its landing was within the expected zone.

China can celebrate a successful mission for its first astronaut with complete justification, but the flight and assessment of Shenzhou 5 is still not entirely complete. There will be much analysis to be performed of data collected during the mission, both from telemetry during the flight and information collected from the returned capsule.

Curiously, Chinese media reported that the Long March 2F launch vehicle ejected a "black box" into the ocean during its ascent, and that crews were searching for it. The box apparently records data that cannot be transmitted during the flight, but the reasons for this are ambiguous.

It could be a question of bandwidth. Sensors on board the rocket could have recorded so much data that it could not be squeezed into the radio downlink during the rapid ascent phase. But it's also possible that the black box contains information that was considered too sensitive for open transmission. Data on the performance of the launch vehicle could have military implications, given the parallels between China's space launchers and its missile program.

Yang almost certainly received a medical examination after his swift return to Beijing, but there is probably little to be learned from this. Doctors would probably certify that Yang was in good health and did not require any medical treatment. But a mission of short duration on board a properly functioning spacecraft is unlikely to produce any significant effects for medical research.

There will also be analysis of the Shenzhou 5 descent capsule, but this will probably just confirm that its re-entry was within engineering tolerances. The capsule seems to be in very good condition, judging by photography released after landing.

Shenzhou 5 also carried seeds in the descent capsule, but it's unlikely that any scientific discoveries will be recorded from monitoring their development. Their exposure to space has been very short and there were no major radiation anomalies or solar flares during the mission. So the radiation dose they received will be small.

Shenzhou V capsule is seen at left after returning to earth with Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei in Inner Mongolia, 16 October 2003. China succesfully completed its manned space flight after Yang safely returned to earth. AFP Photo
Perhaps China intends to use seeds as a sort of diagnostic tool, like a canary in a mineshaft. The successful germination of these seeds will reinforce confidence that the long-term health of China's astronauts will also be assured. The seed package is also political, as some of them were supplied by Taiwan. China is probably hoping that the mission will help relations with Taipei, and this is probably more important to them than any scientific goals.

The most important ongoing part of the Shenzhou 5 mission is the orbital module, which is still circling the Earth. If China follows previous trends, this module, which has all the elements of an independent spacecraft, will remain in orbit for months.

The orbital module is quite large for a capsule spacecraft and contains ample room for astronauts and equipment. Yet China stated prior to launch that the experiment package on Shenzhou 5 would be small, and another statement issued after launch suggested that Yang Liwei would not enter this module during his flight. Why?

It's possible that China is trying to keep things as simple as possible during its maiden astronaut launch. Avoid filling the orbital module with too much gear, and less can go wrong. By keeping the astronaut confined to the descent module, there is no need to supply large amounts of power or oxygen to another part of the spacecraft. This allows resources to be stretched further in the event of an emergency. It also means that the hatch or hatches that interconnect the two crew modules won't be opened and closed too many times, preserving the integrity of the seals.

More complex explanations could be possible. China has admitted that this mission carried a surveillance camera. It would be carried on the orbital module to obtain maximum coverage over a long period. Some analysts claim that two cameras can be seen attached to the side of the module in pre-flight photographs, but this has not been explicitly confirmed. Is there anything else in or on the orbital module that China has not disclosed? There could be other military payloads such as electronic eavesdropping equipment. At the moment, we have no way of knowing.

Another reason could be that China intends to use the orbital module as a docking target for the next Shenzhou mission. Analysts have long speculated that a docking system could be installed in the rear of the module, at the point where it connects to the descent module beneath it. It has been suggested that this would allow successive Shenzhou missions to add their orbital modules to this one, allowing a "train" to be constructed. China would then have a small space station, constructed of Shenzhou orbital modules.

But photography released by China has given no clues to this. In order to make this rendezvous, China would need to launch Shenzhou 6 within a few months. It's not clear if this is possible, or even desirable to the Chinese. One statement issued after the landing suggested that China could wait for one or two years before it launches the next Shenzhou. By then, a rendezvous with the Shenzhou 5 module will be impossible.

Even without a docking system concealed in its rear, the orbital module on future Shenzhou missions could carry one at its front. A "train" of modules would not be possible, but China could still carry out rendezvous and docking exercises, as well as giving its crew extra space. Certain experiments could be left on board the orbital module for long-term exposure to space, and then retrieved by the next crew that docks with the module. Of course, China would need to launch missions more frequently to achieve this.

Hopefully, more information will be revealed in the near future. But whatever happens with the ongoing flight of the Shenzhou 5 orbital module, we are certain to see many interesting events from the Shenzhou program in the future.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and university lecturer. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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