by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Feb 18, 2012
It's been a confusing few days for observers of the Chinese space program. Reports from credible sources in China's state media indicated that the upcoming Shenzhou 9 mission, scheduled to dock with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory, would be launched without a crew.
This went against most expectations, and seemed strange. The reports also suggested that there could have been docking problems with the previous uncrewed Shenzhou 8 mission, which performed a docking test with Tiangong.
The reports also indicated that there would be an experiment package on board the spacecraft, just like previous uncrewed Shenzhou missions.
Now, China has stated that three astronauts will fly to Tiangong 1 aboard Shenzhou 9. This is what we originally expected. What's the story here?
The crewless Shenzhou story appeared in more than one state media source, and was observed by this writer to remain undeleted for some time. This reinforced the suggestion that there was credibility to the story.
It seems crazy to think that a decision on a crew had not been made earlier. We know that crews have been training for the mission, and an aggregation of official comments in the past suggested that they would fly this year.
China was slightly hedging its bets before the last flight, waiting to see if the Shenzhou 8 mission was a success. But there has been plenty of time to review the results of that mission.
Did somebody pull a prank on the Chinese state media? Or could we have witnessed the public airing of an internal struggle within the Shenzhou program? The origins of this strange and internationally circulated story remain a mystery.
Chinese media sources state that the crew will also enter the Tiangong 1 laboratory after docking. This suggests that engineers are confident that the mission can work.
The recent turn of media reports back to the original plan is blessed relief for spaceflight observers. It seems we can look forward to the long-awaited occupation of China's first space laboratory. The mission could apparently slip again to August, but this is not entirely certain.
earlier related report
The change in mission was a surprise. It suggested that the previous uncrewed test mission, Shenzhou 8, was not as successful as China had originally reported. Statements in the Chinese media hinted at problems in achieving an airtight, pressurized link between the two spacecraft.
As previously suggested by this writer, this was believable, but it wasn't necessarily all that was wrong with Shenzhou 8. Removing the crew entirely was a big step backward, and suggested that China didn't even wish to fly a crewed docking mission to the station, even if the crew could not enter the laboratory.
So we must now ask exactly what China plans to do on the flight of Shenzhou 9.
The absence of a crew generates a large gap on board the spacecraft, and also presents some new opportunities. Previous uncrewed Shenzhou test flights have carried experiment packages, which have been returned to Earth aboard the Shenzhou descent capsule.
Unsurprisingly, China intends to fly some experiments aboard Shenzhou 9, but the announced experiments reinforce the idea that the crew cancellation was done at fairly short notice.
The Shenzhou 8 mission carried a sophisticated array of biological experiments from Germany and China. Preparing a complex experiment package takes time and effort. Shenzhou 8 had been scheduled as an uncrewed test flight since its inception, so Chinese officials had the opportunity to plan ahead. Preparations for these experiments took years.
There has been no talk of a similar suite of experiments for the upcoming flight. China has reported that there will be "seeds and animals" on board the spacecraft. To be sure, it's worth flying such living creatures, but it seems to be a rapidly planned substitute payload.
This type of experiment requires little development, but also produces relatively modest results. The seed experiments occasionally show mutations due to cosmic ray exposures, but they are not very scientifically instructive. Similarly, it is not clear how much will be learned from the animal exposures that hasn't been studied before.
Considering the costs of launching a Shenzhou spacecraft, this is a fairly modest scientific program. But at least it's better than nothing, given the lack of planning time allocated to the scientists.
It hasn't been discussed in the media, but Shenzhou 9 will also probably carry flags and medallions which will be distributed as commemorative items after the flight.
The main goal of the mission is testing the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft itself. The mission has been described as basically repeating Shenzhou 8's tasks, which involved staging two docking exercises with Tiangong 1. Shenzhou 8 docked successfully, so we can expect Shenzhou 9 to do the same.
The real test will come when engineers try to form a nice pressurized link between the two spacecraft.
This is apparently where Shenzhou 8 deviated from the script. Right now, it is unclear if there is a mechanical flaw with the Tiangong laboratory itself. A second failure to make an airtight link would hint at this.
Some Chinese media reports have discussed "opening the passageway" linking the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft to Tiangong after the docking. This statement should not be taken too literally. It does not seem realistic to assume that hatches will be opened by robotic arms or other mechanical devices. Instead, this is probably a garbled way of saying that an attempt will be made to pressurize the connecting tunnel between the two spacecraft.
There could be other problems with the Shenzhou spacecraft that are unrelated to the docking system. To an outside observer, the last mission initially seemed to go well. It flew, it docked, it came home. But we know now that the docking had problems. What else could have gone wrong? China was very reluctant to discuss these docking issues until very recently. The general lack of disclosure prompts speculation about what else has not been revealed.
The future of the Shenzhou program will greatly depend on this mission. Although there are no astronauts on board, Shenzhou 9 will be one of the most interesting missions to date.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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