by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 26, 2012
The first crewed expedition to China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory is drawing to a close. Soon, the astronauts will board the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft that carried them to Tiangong 1 for the return to Earth.
The departure of the crew will wrap up China's most ambitious human space flight to date, but does not mean that work on Tiangong 1 is over. Packing up Tiangong 1 at the end of this first expedition will set the stage for a long program of work in the months ahead, and the arrival of more astronauts in the future.
Much of the work in packing up Tiangong 1 will be mundane but vital. There will be a need to take out the trash. This will probably be stored in the Orbital Module at the front of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. The trash, like the module, will be incinerated when the spacecraft re-enters.
The interior surfaces of Tiangong 1 will probably be cleaned with antiseptic wipes, to prevent the growth of mould and bacteria while the module is unoccupied. Air filters will probably be cleaned out.
Experimental samples, which will mostly involve small vials of body fluids from the astronauts themselves, will be stowed aboard the Descent Module of Shenzhou 9 for the return to Earth. There could also be swabs of exposed surfaces, which will be checked for bacterial growth.
Stowing gear will also need to be done with care. Keeping track of items on board the International Space Station is sometimes a frustrating experience, and things are lost and found in strange places frequently. Equipment and tools will need to be returned to their proper areas. There will also be an inventory of consumables aboard the laboratory.
The astronauts will probably conduct photography of the interior of the module. This will help to show the overall condition of the living quarters after a period of heavy use.
The air conditioning conduit that runs through the tunnel between Tiangong and the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will be retracted and stowed aboard Tiangong. Finally, the main computer terminal on the wall of Tiangong will be powered down shortly before the astronauts depart.
Communications gear near this terminal will also be stowed and deactivated at the same time. After this, Tiangong will essentially be mothballed. The last procedure will be the sealing of the hatch to the module, with the crew inside Shenzhou.
It isn't clear if any experiments will be left to operate autonomously inside Tiangong after the crew departs, but it is unlikely that this will happen. Operating anything with moving parts, fluids, living organisms or abnormal temperatures is best done with astronaut supervision.
The one experiment payload that can safely operate without a human touch is the Earth Observation telescope system at the rear of the module. In fact, this probably works better without a crew aboard, owing to the bumps and movements they produce.
The crew will eventually depressurize the tunnel between the two spacecraft, undock, and slowly fly away from Tiangong. As they depart, we can expect a photographic survey of the exterior of Tiangong. Soon afterwards, the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will start its return to Earth.
Once the crew is safely home, a long program of remotely monitoring Tiangong will be underway. The state of its electrical and thermal control systems will be examined, as well as the state of its cabin atmosphere.
The module will soon notch up a complete year in orbit, and its performance will be considered carefully. Video from the interior of the module will also provide a reassuring, if rather boring demonstration that nothing has changed.
Tiangong will then wait patiently for the next crew to arrive on the Shenzhou 10 mission, will probably fly in the first half of next year.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
Shenzhou 9 Special Report at Xinhua News
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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Chinese astronauts complete major tasks in first six days in space
Beijing (XNA) Jun 26, 2012
Three Chinese astronauts have completed major tasks over the past six days inside the conjoint Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 space lab, before they succeeded in a manual docking on Sunday. Chen Shanguang, chief commander of the mission's astronaut system, on Sunday revealed how the astronauts, including the country's first woman astronaut Liu Yang, lived in the conjoint spacecraft during ... read more
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