by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Sep 19, 2011
It seems that our long wait for the launch of China's space laboratory is almost over. Most discussions of the flight of Tiangong 1 suggest that it will certainly launch this month. We can now measure the countdown in days instead of months.
It's been a long struggle to get to this point. Tiangong was supposed to launch in 2010. The small module has gone through more than its fair share of delays and problems.
China hasn't given us access to the full story, but it seems almost certain that there have been technical problems with the laboratory, and possibly the re-design of some components. We know that Tiangong's latest problems have centered around its launch vehicle.
The recent failure of a Chinese satellite launch prompted a safety review of China's rocket fleet, delaying an impending launch of Tiangong by roughly a month.
We don't know if anything has been changed on Tiangong's booster, but at the very least, it's been given some more testing. The successful launch of another Chinese satellite has just provided a confidence booster, and more reason to go ahead with Tiangong soon.
It's been worth the wait. Tiangong is not just another satellite. It's a critical next-step in China's human spaceflight program. Without Tiangong in orbit, a string of missions planned for this year and 2012 simply cannot proceed.
Current plans call for the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to be launched to dock with Tiangong later this year. This will be an unmanned launch that will test rendezvous and docking procedures, as well as providing a shakedown flight for the mass-production model of China's Shenzhou astronaut-launch spacecraft.
If that goes well, we can expect Shenzhou 9 to fly to Tiangong in early 2012, with astronauts aboard. Shenzhou 10 is expected to follow in late 2012. The Tiangong 1 module itself is expected to function for at least two years.
Delaying the launch by a few weeks is a small price to pay for achieving success, and it seems most likely that China will succeed with this launch.
The Tiangong space laboratory itself will probably work too. If we are lucky, there could be video and photography from the spacecraft in-orbit. There are two Earth Observation cameras on board Tiangong. Will we get a peek at what they are seeing?
With all this work in place, China needs to specify a launch date in public very soon. We're counting down. It's time to go.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst. 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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