by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 13, 2012
Soon, three Chinese astronauts on the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will dock with China's first space laboratory, Tiangong 1. This will mark the first docking of a crewed Chinese spacecraft with another vehicle. It will also produce the longest Chinese crewed space mission to date.
Tiangong 1 has been in orbit since September 2011, and received a docking from the uncrewed Shenzhou 8 spacecraft in November of that year. This will be the first time that Chinese astronauts have inhabited anything more than the Shenzhou spacecraft used on previous missions.
Tiangong 1 has already been flying for roughly nine months, far longer than any previous vehicle designed for Chinese astronauts, and it's expected to remain functional for a long time. Will the spacecraft be ready for the next stage in its operations?
China is being deliberately cautious in the planning of this first crewed expedition. One of the three astronauts who will fly on the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft to Tiangong will not live on board the laboratory. Instead, this astronaut will remain on board Shenhou 9, which will always be docked to Tiangong, ready to evacuate the crew quickly in the event of an emergency.
China has not confirmed the entry procedures for Tiangong, but we can expect that the crew will be cautious. After docking, there will be numerous tests to confirm that the two vehicles are docked correctly, and that the appropriate electrical connections have been made.
The tunnel between the vehicles will be pressurized with breathable air, which will then be checked by the astronauts. Ground controllers will again verify this via telemetry, and will also monitor the performance of Tiangong immediately after the rigours of docking.
When the hatches are finally opened between the spacecraft, one astronaut will carefully enter Tiangong wearing a face mask and goggles. Such precautions are normal on most spacecraft dockings, even on the International Space Station. They will protect the astronaut from dust and debris which could be floating inside the cabin.
A quick inspection of the interior of the vehicle will be made, and the astronaut will move to a control panel on the wall of Tiangong. Checks will be made of the internal functions of Tiangong, and commands will be entered to fully activate the module. Soon afterwards, it will be safe for the second resident of Tiangong to enter the laboratory module.
This is how events will unfold if everything is normal. If there's a problem, the mission can be modified or aborted. The astronauts could perform docking tests with the module even if they feel it is unsafe to enter. Or the astronauts could conduct a brief entry to the module, recover some items, then return to the safety of their spacecraft.
Problems can occur, but are they likely? This analyst expects that the upcoming mission to Tiangong 1 will be "nominal", with only a few minor problems.
Tiangong 1 has already jumped over most of the major engineering hurdles that could defeat its mission. It went through a long and convoluted sequence of delays before it was launched from Earth.
This was largely due to engineering problems that had been uncovered. The delays were frustrating, but it is far better to tackle problems on the ground than face those problems in space. It would seem that Tiangong was fastidiously debugged, and its subsequent performance in space lends support to that suggestion.
Tiangong suffered no damage during launch or the deployment of its solar panels. These are issues that have plagued other launches. It also successfully demonstrated the performance of its rendezvous and docking systems twice, during the test mission of Shenzhou 8.
Tiangong 1 has been remotely monitored during its flight. Controllers can be sure of the performance of its internal systems. They have also been able to inspect the interior of the spacecraft, which looks as good as it did before launch. Other cameras on Tiangong, and the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft that docked with it, reveal no obvious problems on the exterior.
China has also previously stated that the cabin atmosphere has been remotely monitored, and has been shown to be suitable for astronauts. This clears any worries about the potential release of toxic gases from materials inside the cabin. These usually only appear at small levels, but they can give astronauts headaches.
There's another broader observation. Tiangong has worked properly for an extended period. This has given plenty of time for any major manufacturing or design problems to manifest. It would seem that these technical gremlins were removed before launch and were unable to sneak back on board.
So we can expect that China's next crew of astronauts will feel welcome aboard Tiangong 1. This should be a safe and productive mission. Good luck to the men and woman on board Shenzhou 9.
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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Life Supplies and Manned Docking Tested in Shenzhou-9 Mission
Beijing (CRI) Jun 12, 2012
NASA space scientist Mark Lee says the manned docking process contains sophisticated technologies and techniques. "The Shenzhou 8 was such a great success that further facilitates the manned missions of Shenzhou 9 capsule. The manual docking requires higher technology and skills. "The current docking mechanism adopted by NASA is dual, which means the automatic docking procedure could be sw ... read more
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