by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) June 18, 2012
Three Chinese astronauts on Monday entered an orbiting module for the first time, in a move broadcast live on China's state television network and a key step towards the nation's first space station.
The astronauts, two men and a woman, passed into the Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace") module a little under three hours after it docked with the Shenzhou-9 ("Divine Vessel") spacecraft.
The Shenzhou-9 took off Saturday carrying the first Chinese woman to go into space, before undergoing the third automatic docking China has ever performed, and the first for a manned mission.
The astronauts, who were shown waving to a camera as they floated inside the narrow Tiangong-1 capsule, will attempt to complete the highly technical docking procedure manually later in their 13-day mission.
The Tiangong-1 is an experimental module that is part of China's programme to build a space station by 2020.
It will only stay in orbit until 2013 and will later be replaced, but is designed to test the docking technique essential to a space station -- a delicate move the Russians and Americans successfully completed in the 1960s.
The manoeuvre is hard to master because the two vessels, placed in the same orbit and revolving around the Earth at thousands of kilometres per hour, must come together very gently to avoid destroying each other.
Reports have said the Shenzhou-9 will remain attached to the space capsule for six days before separating in preparation for the manual docking.
President Hu Jintao has said the operation would mark a "major breakthrough in the country's manned space programme", which is gearing up just as the United States scales back its manned space exploration activities.
China sees its space programme as a symbol of its global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
The ability to dock manually is necessary in case of any problems with the automatic procedure, such as the control centre being unable to carry it out remotely from Earth.
The team -- headed by Jing Haipeng, a veteran astronaut on his third space mission -- have rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times in simulations.
Liu Wang, who has been in the space programme for 14 years, will be in charge of manual docking manoeuvres, while Liu Yang, China's first woman to travel to space, will conduct aerospace medical experiments and other space tests.
Their mission has been heavily trailed in China's state-run media, with much of the attention focused on Liu Yang -- at 33, the youngest of the three.
She has been hailed as a national heroine and her mission is being excitedly followed in the Chinese media and on the country's popular microblogs.
Banners have reportedly been put up at her former high school in central China's Henan province celebrating her selection as the country's first female "taikonaut", as the country dubs its space travellers.
China's space mission shows growing ambitions
The Shenzhou-9 rocket blasted off from the Gobi desert on Saturday with three astronauts on board -- including, for the first time, a woman -- to conduct China's first manned space docking, the latest step towards setting up a space station.
The mission marks a huge stride forward for China, which in 1999 kicked off its manned space programme with the launch of Shenzhou-1 ("Divine Vessel" in Chinese) with no crew on board.
Two years later, Shenzhou-2 lifted off with small animals aboard, and in 2003, China sent its first man into space. Since then, it has completed a space walk in 2008 and an unmanned docking between a module and rocket last year.
But the latest mission is even more technically demanding, as astronauts will have to control the space docking manually.
The procedure will put the spacecraft's manual control system to the test and demands huge operational accuracy from the astronauts, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, told reporters.
"This is China's most ambitious space mission so far. It is longer and more complex than anything previously done," said Morris Jones, an Australian space expert.
"It shows that China is serious about its long-term goals in space."
Successful completion of the docking -- a highly technical procedure that requires two vessels to gently come together in high speed orbit -- will take China one step closer to building its own space station in 2020.
The mission has also taken on a symbolic dimension as Shenzhou-9 is carrying Liu Yang, China's first ever female astronaut to go to space.
The Asian powerhouse has even bigger ambitions of sending astronauts to the moon, although nothing has yet been set in stone.
Nevertheless, China -- which in the 1980s was focused solely on developing satellites -- continues to play catch-up with Russia and the United States.
"It will still take at least another decade before China reaches a comparable level to Russia or the USA in space flight," said Jones.
Just like it did for its first manned space flight, China is having to master key manoeuvres and tasks that the Americans and Russians successfully completed way back in the 1960s, as it races towards creating a space station.
Professor Rene Oosterlinck from the European Space Agency said "manned flights are firstly a matter of prestige and a nod to Chinese citizens."
"It's obvious that China, which is absent from the International Space Station, wants to demonstrate that it is capable of independently doing something similar," he told AFP.
"The fact that a woman is present this time round is also symbolic as it demonstrates that the Chinese space infrastructure allows for mixed crews, which in a way is more complex as, for instance, you need toilets adapted for both sexes."
But he added that from a strategic point of view, satellites are much more important for China.
As it pushes to become a global space power, experts say China's ambitions go well beyond a space station, or even a moon landing, to satellite observation and a global positioning system to rival that of the United States.
By 2016, China will "increase the use of satellites to contribute to the development of strategic industries and satisfy the needs of the economy" in telecommunications, earth observation or global positioning systems, said a white paper released late last year.
In 2011, China launched its version of the US Global Positioning System (GPS), the Beidou satellite navigation system. Further satellites will enable the new system to cover Asia this year, and the whole world by 2020.
Beijing has long maintained that the rapid development of its space capabilities is peaceful in nature, and the white paper reiterated this, saying Beijing "opposes weaponisation or any arms race in outer space."
But concerns remain over China's intentions.
In 2009, air force commander General Xu Qiliang caused a stir when he said armed forces should prepare for the "inevitable" militarisation of outer space -- a claim hastily disavowed by President Hu Jintao.
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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