by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 14, 2012
The flight of the first crew to China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory is another step in China's most ambitious human spaceflight project to date. While much of the mission has yet to be completed, Tiangong 1 has already completed some major tasks. It's worth reviewing how much China is gaining from this small space laboratory.
Tiangong 1 is barely larger than the Shenzhou spacecraft that are used to visit it. It's not large enough to be a real space station, and it will spend most of its lifetime unoccupied. However, this module gives China a strong foothold in spaceflight.
Just getting Tiangong 1 into orbit was an achievement. This represents an entirely new spacecraft. Some of the technology it contains is almost certainly recycled from the Shenzhou spacecraft that China has flown since 1999, but much of it is new. Improvements have been made on some systems.
Other systems are totally new to this space laboratory. The laboratory has also been launched in a fully operational mode on its first flight. Previous Shenzhou spacecraft were gradually improved over the first test flights, with the first mission being unsuitable for astronauts.
Tiangong 1 has also given China experience in rendezvous and docking. This is a vital technique for any nation that hopes to run an ambitious human spaceflight program. Their automated docking systems have worked well on two missions, and suggest that China can depend on its docking procedures in the future.
Tiangong also started carrying out experiments soon after launch. The spacecraft carries two Earth Observation telescopes that are remotely operated from Earth. The module itself has been an experiment, as controllers examine its performance in space.
The astronauts aboard Tiangong are also carrying out scientific experiments that cannot be easily performed on a recoverable satellite. Human intervention has its advantages, and the astronauts will demonstrate the usefulness of placing people in space.
The space laboratory has already flown in orbit for more than nine months, and is expected to function for around two years. This will give China practical experience in operating astronaut-carrying modules for long periods. The reliability of certain components will be put to the test over the course of this marathon flight.
Tiangong 1 is also setting the stage for more ambitious events in the future. A second crew is expected to fly to this module next year. Later in the decade, China expects to launch the Tiangong 2 space laboratory.
This will resemble Tiangong 1, but is expected to contain more advanced features, such as improved life-support systems. Eventually, China will launch Tiangong 3, which will be the equivalent of a small space station.
This, in turn, will prepare China for its ultimate near-term goal in space: The construction of a large, modular space station around 2020.
The Tiangong module itself will still be useful even after China has developed its permanent space station. It will serve as the basic design for a cargo-carrying spacecraft to the station. The first test flight of a Tiangong-style cargo vehicle could be made to the Tiangong 3 laboratory, which will feature docking ports for more than one spacecraft.
China has made advances with every mission in its human spaceflight program, but Tiangong 1 represents a major step forward. The laboratory is achieving big steps in the short term, and also laying the foundations for greater things to come.
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.
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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