by Staff Writers
Beijing, China (AFP) Sep 29, 2011
China took its first step towards building a space station on Thursday when it launched an experimental module ahead of National Day celebrations.
Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace", took off on schedule shortly after 09:15pm (1315 GMT) from the Gobi desert in China's northwest, propelled by a Long March 2F rocket, ahead of China's National Day on October 1.
The unmanned 8.5-tonne module will test various space operations as a preliminary step towards building a space station by 2020.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was at the launch centre for the take-off, while President Hu Jintao watched from a space flight control centre in Beijing, the state Xinhua news agency said.
China sees its ambitious space programme as a symbol of its global stature and state newspapers devoted several pages to the launch, hailing it as a "milestone" for the country.
Tiangong-1, which has a two-year lifespan in space, will receive the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft later this year in what would be the first Chinese docking in space.
If that succeeds, the module will then dock with two other spacecraft -- Shenzhou IX and X -- in 2012, both of which will have at least one astronaut on board.
The technology for docking in space is hard to master because the two vessels, placed in the same orbit and revolving around Earth at some 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,360 mph), must come together progressively to avoid destroying each other.
French researcher Isabelle Sourbes-Verger said that a correctly functioning docking system would put China "in a potential position to one day access the International Space Station (ISS)."
But she cautioned that this was not likely to happen in the next five years.
China, which has only been open to the world for some 30 years, is playing catch-up in the space arena.
Just like its first manned spaceflight in 2003, the planned space docking later this year will emulate what the Americans and Russians achieved in the 1960s.
China aims to finish its space station, where astronauts can live autonomously for several months like on the ISS or the former Russian Mir, by 2020.
Beijing began its manned spaceflight programme in 1990, after it bought Russian technology that enabled it to become the third country to send humans into space, after the former USSR and the United States.
On its national day last year, China launched its second lunar probe, Chang'e-2, and the first Chinese probe destined for Mars is due to be launched by a Russian rocket this autumn.
It is unclear whether China plans to send humans to the moon, particularly after the United States said it would not return there.
But the official China Daily newspaper quoted Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, as saying that the Asian nation was doing "concept research and preliminary feasibility studies on manned moon landings."
She added there was currently no set timetable for such a landing.
earlier related report
Fuel has been injected into the Long March-2FT1 carrier rocket, which the Tiangong-1 is mounted to and scheduled to be launched from Thursday evening at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.
The Long March-2FT1 is the latest modified model of the Long March-2 rocket series and features a more powerful thrust force, said spokeswoman Wu Ping at a press conference at the launch center.
The Long march-2FT1, which has been given more than 170 modifications, is 52-meters long with a payload to low Earth orbit of 8.6 tonnes, according to Wu.
The modifications to the rocket came after an unsuccessful launch in August when a Long March-2C rocket malfunctioned and failed to send an experimental satellite into orbit.
Engineers conducted comprehensive technical evaluations and made modifications to improve the reliability of the Tiangong-1's Long March-2F carrier rocket, which shares most of its components with the failed Long March-2C.
Wu said China is confident about the upcoming launch of its first space lab module, despite the highly risky nature of space explorations.
Despite August's failed launch, China's Long March rocket series has a success rate of 94.4 percent for its nearly 130 space launches since 1990 - a ratio higher than that of the world's total space launches.
The shape of the rocket's boosters has also been modified to allow for greater fuel volume than the Long March-2F model, resulting in an increase in its thrust power, the chief designer said.
Compared with carrier rockets that the United States and Russia have used to launch moon-landing vehicles and space station components, China's Long March rocket series is much less powerful.
For example, a carrier rocket must have a payload capacity of at least 20 tonnes to send one single part of the International Space Station into low Earth orbit.
"China's manned space program aims at building up a space station, so we need a more powerful carrier rocket," Jing told Xinhua at the launch center.
"Research and development on a new, bigger carrier rocket that burns more environmentally-friendly liquid-oxygen-kerosene fuels is in progress," he said.
Docking tests for space station
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 said.
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 8.5-tonne Tiangong-1, with a length of 10.4 meters and maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, is scheduled to blast off between 13:16 and 13:31 GMT on Thursday.
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, Wu said.
Once it has mastered the space docking technology, China plans to develop and launch multiple space modules to assemble a 60-tonne manned space station around 2020 in which Chinese astronauts will start more research projects in space.
According to Wu, Chinese scientists have begun research on a manned moon-landing, but the government has no plan or timetable for such a mission.
Tiangong-1 leaves no junk
"We will enhance our monitoring and early-warning measures for space debris during the Tiangong-1 mission to prevent collision in space," the spokeswoman said.
"China is always willing to participate in international dialogue and cooperation to jointly handle space debris, and China will also bolster its exchanges and cooperation with other countries to contribute to the exploration and peaceful use of space," she said.
"We believe that international exchanges and cooperation in the field of aerospace engineering should be intensified on the basis of mutual benefit, peaceful use and common development."
China has carried out comprehensive cooperation and exchanges with countries such as Russia and Germany, as well as with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), since it started its manned space program in 1992.
Wu said the Tiangong-1 will carry 300 IAF flags into outer space.
According to Wu, scientists from China and Germany will jointly carry out experiments on space life science at the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft.
One Chinese scientist and five international peers have also participated in Russia's Mars-500 Program, a ground-based experiment simulating a manned expedition to Mars.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, told Xinhua that China will turn its future space station into an international platform for space research and application.
"China's ultimate intention for developing space technologies is to explore space resources and make use of them for mankind's well-being," Zhou said.
Research on geography, astronomy and bio-technology in a low-gravity environment, such as that of a space station, will bring unimaginably greater achievements than those conducted on Earth's surface, he said.
Source: Xinhua News Agency
Tiangong-1 Special Report at China Daily
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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