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by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily.com
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Feb 15, 2013
As we approach the launch of China's next human space mission, some questions still remain unanswered. This is not unusual for the relatively veiled nature of China's space program, but it does invite speculation. What exactly will we see when Shenzhou 10, the next spacecraft to fly, lifts off?
We can make some fairly strong assumptions about the Shenzhou spacecraft itself. The vehicle probably has no major differences from Shenzhou 9, the mission that carried three astronauts to China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory in 2012. China seems to have frozen the basic design of Shenzhou, but there could be some minor (and invisible) changes to some of its sub-systems.
There could be improvements to the software or some minor mechanical or electrical parts. China has said nothing about improvements to the spacecraft in recent months, which contrasts with the way that previous upgrades were sometimes proudly advertised, even if details on the upgrades themselves were not provided.
The landing of Shenzhou 9 was safe but rough, with the descent module flipping over after its retrorockets fired. It's possible that something has been done to reduce the chances of this happening again.
Like its Shenzhou 9 predecessor, Shenzhou 10 is slated to carry astronauts to occupy the Tiangong 1 laboratory before returning them to Earth.
China has stated that Shenzhou 10 will carry additional logistics to permit a longer stay aboard Tiangong 1 than the previous expedition.
This is probably due to the fact that existing supplies on board Tiangong are not sufficient for an extended mission. The extension is a sign that China is doing more with Tiangong than was originally expected, and stems from the good performance of the spacecraft.
There will probably also be more experimental equipment carried aboard Shenzhou 10. Some of this could be moved into the laboratory for use, or operated on board Shenzhou itself.
Now to the crew. It is no secret that three astronauts will crew Shenzhou 10. China has also given hints that one of them will be a woman. As usual, the exact identities of the crew will probably remain officially concealed until shortly before launch.
This hasn't stopped analysts (including this writer) speculating on their names, and there is good reason to believe that these predictions will come true. It is widely expected that the crew of Shenzhou 10 will be Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping.
Nie is a veteran astronaut who flew on Shenzhou 6 in 2005. Zhang is an unflown member of China's original group of astronauts. Wang is a rookie from China's second batch of astronauts and one of only two females in the entire astronaut corps. Her colleague, Liu Yang, became China's first woman in space on the Shenzhou 9 mission.
These three astronauts represent the backup crew for the Shenzhou 9 mission. Keeping this crew intact and moving it up to the next mission would save time and effort in forming new crews. It's also consistent with practices in other human space programs, but this form of "graduation" for an entire back-up crew has never been seen before in the Chinese program.
Previous Chinese crewed space missions have made "graduation" for crews technically impossible. Prior to this mission, every Chinese astronaut launch was profoundly different from the previous one.
Although backup astronauts for previous missions would sometimes find themselves selected for subsequent flights, there was no direct transfer of entire backup crews. The differences in missions and in crew sizes simply did not allow for this.
China's first human spaceflight mission carried just one astronaut. Its second mission carried two, and flew a different mission plan. The same applied to the third mission, with three astronauts and a different mission entirely. The fourth (Shenzhou 9) also carried three astronauts but was the first mission targeted at occupying a space laboratory. Although Shenzhou 10 will have its differences from Shenzhou 9, this is the first time that a crewed Chinese mission has generally had the same format as its predecessor.
Thus the mission can easily use a crew trained for the previous flight. We can expect, however, that their training will be updated with lessons learned from the Shenzhou 9 mission and changes introduced for the extended mission of Shenzhou 10.
A backup crew for Shenzhou 10 would also be in training. This author believes that the crew would probably consist of three male astronauts, with at least one veteran astronaut on the crew. Their identities are unknown and less easy to guess.
Other elements of the upcoming mission, including the roll-out of the Long March 2F rocket, will probably look exactly the same as on previous missions. We are used to seeing these things now, and it's difficult to tell images of one rocket apart from others without more clues.
There is no reason to believe that there have been any changes to the rocket, which has an increasingly impressive performance record.
There's no reason to expect that the launch trajectory or basic orbital flight plan to the Tiangong laboratory will be any different, either. Some things cannot be changed for technical reasons, while others simply work well. China has issued no statements that would lead us to suspect anything else. We know that there will be close formation flying near and around Tiangong by Shenzhou 10, but the overall rendezvous plan should be the same.
Most of these questions will be answered before, during and after the mission. Fortunately, analysts do not question that the flight of Shenzhou 10 will be a success, with a safe return to Earth.
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.
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