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Chief designer explains Chinese way of mastering space docking technology
by Staff Writers
Jiuquan, China (XNA) Sep 30, 2011

The most nerve-wracking moments will be during the docking when a series of operations should be finished quickly and accurately or the spacecraft running at 7.7 km an hour will end in disaster, according to Zhou.

Some developed countries acquired docking technology crucial to landing a space station decades ago, and, to catch up with leaders in space technology, China plans to use more speed and cut costs, said a Chinese scientist with the manned space program.

This docking technology is the most risky aspect of China's manned space program. "We can never count on other countries to sell their mature technology to us, so we have to rely on our own," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, told Xinhua in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

The interview was made ahead of the launch of China's first space lab module, the Tiangong-1, scheduled for Thursday evening. The successful launch and docking are expected to pave the way for building the nation's first space station.

The space programs of the United States and Russia only achieved a single target during each mission, but China's Tiangong-1 operation will realize three other goals in addition to docking, Zhou said.

For other countries' docking processes, one module could only dock with one spacecraft. The Tiangong-1 will eventually dock with three spacecraft, namely the Shenzhou-8, -9 and -10. It will cut costs significantly, Zhou noted.

While optimism pervades the pre-launch discussion, Zhou underlined challenges facing this highly risky space mission.

Although the most advanced microwave radar and laser radar systems have been deployed to provide accurate positioning data for the two spacecraft, those facilities have not yet been guaranteed to be able to purely simulate the space environment, Zhou said.

It is also a tough job to maintain a distance of several centimeters between the two spacecraft before they touch each other, he said.

Meanwhile, burning a minimum amount of fuel to complete the docking is also a grim test, he said.

The most nerve-wracking moments will be during the docking when a series of operations should be finished quickly and accurately or the spacecraft running at 7.7 km an hour will end in disaster, according to Zhou.

"Since we have never conducted this test before, and the system is so complicated, we have many unknowns. It is highly risky," he said.

Contingency plans have been laid out for handling unexpected events, he said.

If the Tiangong-1 successfully enters its low Earth orbit, it will await space dockings with the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, to be launched one month later, and the Shenzhou-9 and -10 spacecraft, to be launched successively for more docking tests in the next two years.

After two docking tests with the Tiangong-1, the Shenzhou-8 will return to Earth and the Tiangong-1 will wait for the next docking test, Wu Ping, a spokesperson for China's manned space program said at a press conference Wednesday.

According to the plan for China's manned space program, the Shenzhou-10 will be a manned spacecraft, possibly carrying a female Chinese astronaut who will test manual space rendezvous and docking with the Tiangong-1.

The space docking tests and experiments conducted through the Tiangong-1 module will provide experience for China's construction of a permanent manned space station around 2020.

Source: Xinhua News Agency


Related Links
Tiangong-1 Special Report at China Daily
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from

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