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Sizing Up Shenzhou 10
by Dr Morris Jones for
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 03, 2013

The first and second stage launchers of the Long March 2-F rocket which will carry China's new manned spacecraft Shenzhou-10 are placed at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for further test in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu Province, May 3, 2013. The Long March 2-F rocket was delivered to the center on May 2 and it is technologically advanced and more reliable compared to the one that carried the Shenzhou-9. Shenzhou-10, scheduled to blast off early next month, was delivered to the launch center in northwest China on March 31. (Xinhua/Liang Jie)

Facts and figures about China's upcoming Shenzhou 10 are emerging at a steady pace. Much of what China's state-run media has recently disclosed has been suspected for a long time, but we now have the reassurance that most of our earlier assumptions about the mission were correct.

Sizing up this mission, we can see that it will truly be the longest Chinese human space mission to date, with the total flight time being roughly 15 days. For roughly twelve days of the mission, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft will be docked to the Tiangong 1 space laboratory, which is really a small space station.

It is assumed that Shenzhou 10 will spend roughly two days after launch preparing to dock with Tiangong 1, and will spend roughly a day flying solo in orbit after undocking from Tiangong 1 before it returns to Earth.

It has been officially confirmed that Wang Yaping, China's second female astronaut, will be on the crew. This was widely expected by space analysts, who had been tipped off by earlier media reports to expect a female crewmember. Wang was a backup to Liu Yang, who became China's first female astronaut on the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012.

Shenzhou 10 will carry three astronauts in total. Curiously, the other two astronauts were not officially named at the same time that Wang was confirmed. It is assumed that the mission commander will be a veteran astronaut from a previous mission, while the third astronaut will probably be a rookie.

There are some interesting details in the fine print of China's recent media reports. The crew will "transport cargo to and from the space station for the first time". This could be a reference to the crew logistics carried on Shenzhou 10 to compensate for the dwindling supplies on board Tiangong 1. However, this analyst believes that this statement also refers to experimental samples or apparatus which could be processed on board Tiangong 1. These could include biological specimens or new materials.

In fact, some items were previously retrieved by the Shenzhou 9 crew from Tiangong 1, when a cache of commemorative flags launched aboard Tiangong was returned. It's also probable that other samples were returned. The media reference could have accidentally ignored these activities on Shenzhou 9, but it could also suggest that something more substantial is planned for the upcoming mission.

China's media also suggests Shenzhou is "entering its final stage. With this mission, its performance will be finalized."

This simply reinforces perceptions that the mass-production design of the Shenzhou spacecraft, first introduced on the uncrewed Shenzhou 8 mission, is proving its worth. China has tested it twice already and it has performed well. After a third successful mission on Shenzhou 10, the design of Shenzhou will probably be considered frozen and fully perfected.

The media reports are slightly more obscure with regard to on-orbit manoeuvres to be performed by Shenzhou 10. It confirms that automatic and manual dockings will again be performed, as they were on Shenzhou 9. The media also confirms that Shenzhou 10 will "fly around" Tiangong. Then we are told of the practice of "docking techniques at different positions" on Tiangong 1.

Tiangong 1 only has one docking port, so some interpretations of this vague statement can be ruled out. The statement is probably a reference to earlier claims that different approach angles for docking would be tested, with the Tiangong laboratory positioned in different orientations for various docking experiments.

We still don't have a complete and official report on the crew composition, and some of the tasks to be performed will probably only be disclosed as the mission progresses. Let's wait and see what emerges next.

Rollout for Shenzhou 10
The silence has been broken. After an extended period of silence from Chinese authorities, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and its rocket have been rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at China's Jiuquan space launch complex.

The rollout of Shenzhou 10 to the launch pad has clarified a lot of uncertainties surrounding China's next astronaut launch. It is the best sign of all that the mission is on track. Furthermore, it helps us to resolve questions of the timing of the launch.

At the time of writing, China has not specified the launch date for Shenzhou 10, but we can make some predictions. Given the time it takes to prepare the rocket for launch after rollout, the most likely launch date for Shenzhou 10 is June 11.

Soon, we can expect the usual flurry of pre-launch preparations, and hopefully we will see more media coverage of the mission.

This analyst had earlier written of the relatively scarce level of reportage on Shenzhou 10 in recent times, which has been even more threadbare than China's usually tight disclosures. Exactly why this happened is still not entirely clear, but the silence could be connected to recent reshuffles in China's political machinery.

The June 11 launch date, if confirmed, will allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend ceremonies related to the launch and possibly even witness the launch itself.

Right now, we do not know exactly what he plans to do. Mr Xi will have recently returned from a visit to the USA to meet US President Barack Obama, but it is not clear if spaceflight will be mentioned during this meeting.

In any case, relations between the USA and China on space-related matters have been frosty for years, and this analyst does not expect this to change in the near future.

More information will probably come out soon. Stay tuned.

earlier related report
Soft Pedal for Shenzhou 10
We are expecting the launch of China's next astronaut mission within two weeks. The rocket and spacecraft for the flight of Shenzhou 10 are at the launch site and are undergoing preparations.

China has openly reported on most of the preliminary stages that lead up to a launch. But suddenly, they have gone very silent. There has been a curious absence of reportage on the Shenzhou 10 mission in China's state-run media in recent days.

We should have received a few updates on progress with the launch preparations or some soft "background" stories on the space program. China is notoriously stingy with media coverage of its space missions, and we did not expect a torrent of reportage. Still, China could have said a lot more by now.

Is there a serious problem with Shenzhou 10? Probably not. Technically, the space hardware is probably in a very good state. China has plenty of experience in launching Shenzhou missions and has a track record of success. Few analysts had any real worries about the upcoming mission.

The Shenzhou program is an outstanding achievement for China. Only three nations have ever developed the ability to independently launch their own astronauts into orbit.

Right now, only China and Russia have operational systems to do this. The Shenzhou program has attracted the admiration of people inside and outside of China. It is a powerful symbol of China's prosperity and capabilities.

This analyst suspects that China is soft-pedalling media coverage of Shenzhou 10 for timing reasons, and also for political reasons. Analysts had long predicted that Shenzhou 10 could launch on June 7.

This no longer seems to be a likely launch date, judging from the pace of preparations. Alternative launch dates on June 9 and 11 (China time) are now being favoured.

China likes to time its publicity blitz to coincide with the final days before launching a Shenzhou mission. If this policy is still in place, we could be experiencing a delay in publicity due to the timing of the mission. If we wait long enough, China will eventually shine the spotlight on the astronauts, the spacecraft and the launch.

There could be more complex factors adding to the delays. China now has a new set of leaders in power in Beijing. There could be reshuffles across a variety of administrative areas, including the space program and the media.

One theory considered by this analyst is that new lines have been drawn in terms of what is acceptable for public disclosure of any state-run activities.

It's also possible that no specific lines or new policies have been drawn, and media workers are being very cautious to avoid crossing any invisible lines or upsetting their new masters.

The upcoming visit of President Xi Jinping to the USA could also be complicating both the timing of the launch and the pattern of media coverage. China could be timing the launch to wait for Mr Xi's return from the USA, so he can attend pre-launch ceremonies.

It could also be the case that China does not want to draw too much attention to its growing capabilities in spaceflight before Mr Xi's meeting with US President Obama.

Hopefully there will be more publicity very soon. But even when that happens, it will not alter the fact that China has already been more reserved than usual in the lead-up to this mission.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has covered the Shenzhou program for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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Rollout for Shenzhou 10
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 03, 2013
The silence has been broken. After an extended period of silence from Chinese authorities, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and its rocket have been rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at China's Jiuquan space launch complex. The rollout of Shenzhou 10 to the launch pad has clarified a lot of uncertainties surrounding China's next astronaut launch. It is the best sign of all that the mis ... read more

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