by Li Hongmei
Beijing (XNA) Sep 30, 2011
China's first space laboratory, Tiangong-1, is slated to blast into orbit between 13:16 and 13:31 GMT Thursday, just one day prior to China's National Day on Oct.1. It will be the latest showcase of the nation's growing prowess in space, and comes while budget restraints and economic tailspin have held back the once dominant U.S. space missions.
If all goes well according to plan, this will mark China's initial success in docking, which is considered one of the sine qua nons for more prolonged exploration of space.
Tiangong1, or Heavenly Palace in Chinese, will be aboard China's Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China. The test module is designed to test docking technology with the country's Shenzhou spacecraft, which is an important step toward China's goal of orbiting a crewed station in space.
China is expected to launch three additional spacecraft at a later time to connect with Tiangong-1. The unmanned Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft are designed to attach robotically to the Tiangong 1 module in the first dockings in orbit.
If the Tiangong-1 successfully enters its low earth orbit, it will await space dockings with the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, to be launched one month later, and the Shenzhou-9 and -10 spacecraft, to be launched successively for more docking tests. The module is expected to remain in orbit for two years.
Over the next two years, China will probably attempt a Tiangong mission piloted by astronauts after two unmanned trials. According to plan for China's manned space program, the Shenzhou-10 will be a manned spacecraft, possibly carrying a female Chinese who will test manual space rendezvous and docking with the Tiangong-1.
The 8.5-ton Tiangong-1, with a length of 10.4 meters and maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, will serve as an important milestone for the country's growing space program. Relevant authorities have voiced their intent to build a 60-ton manned space station by the year 2020, the size of NASA's 1970s-era Skylab.
In addition to acting as an important test bed for these space station aspirations, Tiangong-1 will also carry medical and engineering experiments into space.
But to fulfill the dream of "flying Apsaras," China has to surmount its limitations in its rocket technologies. 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.
Currently, China is the third nation to independently launch humans into orbit, after the United States and Russia. The nation's first manned mission, Shenzhou-5, was piloted by Yang Liwei in 2003. The 21-hour maiden odysssey was followed by two more manned missions in 2005 and 2008.
The U.S. says it will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority for its space program.
As expected, China's space expedition plans have stirred up baseless speculations and undue worries from some foreign countries that Tiangong-1's liftoff would possibly lead to a new wave of space race, or with space technology's dual-use of value to both civil and military communities, anything done by China in space could have spillover to the military.
To this, the Chinese side has adequate evidence to point to just the opposite. Just one thing, China is neither the first country to seek explorations in outer space, nor the country with the most advanced technology, it seems incomprehensible that China should cause concern to others.
Moreover, China, as a big and responsible country, has always bolstered exchanges and cooperation with other countries to contribute to the exploration and peaceful use of space.
In actuality, 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.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, was quoted by Xinhua as saying "China's ultimate intention for developing space technologies is to explore space resources and make use of them for mankind's well-being."
Hence, the peaceful purpose of the Chinese government's space exploration is beyond doubt. Actively exploring and peacefully using outer space are the basic principles upon which China is developing its space program and will always adhere to.
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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