by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 09, 2013
The imminent launch of Shenzhou 10 has caught the attention of spacewatchers. As its number indicates, this is hardly the first launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft, which has now chalked up well over a decade of flights. Now that China has so much experience in spaceflight, it's worth asking what's new about this upcoming mission.
This tenth launch of Shenzhou is China's fifth crewed space mission. Shenzhous 5, 6, 7 and 9 all carried astronauts into space. Shenzhou's other missions (1,2,3,4 and 8) were flown without anyone on board, and were largely aimed at testing the vehicle. Shenzhou has undergone revisions to its design throughout its lifetime, as different features have been interchanged for different missions.
Since Shenzhou 8, China has settled on a "standard" design for the spacecraft that features a docking system at its front, and a single set of solar panels on the instrument module at the spacecraft's rear. The third launch of a "standard" Shenzhou is noteworthy, as it suggests that this configuration of the spacecraft is performing well.
China has not delayed the launch to fix any major technical problems and has not spoken of any issues with the design and construction of the spacecraft. In fact, the Chinese media have repeatedly suggested that they are happy with its performance.
Thus, it seems unlikely that China will perform any more uncrewed test flights of this vehicle in the foreseeable future, and we have reached another milestone in the program. The number of crewed missions will now match the number of tests flights.
The mission of Shenzhou 10 will repeat most of the basic operations carried out by the Shenzhou 9 mission, and will carry out a docking with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory. In this regard, Shenzhou 10 will become the first mission to essentially mimic its predecessor.
Previous crewed Shenzhou missions have differed wildly in terms of crew size, mission length and mission objectives. The consistency of these two missions is another sign that the program is maturing and becoming more routine.
This will be China's longest space mission to date, and Shenzhou 10 is expected to stay in orbit for around 15 days, with roughly 12 days spent docked at Tiangong 1. The availability of extra cabin space, gear and logistics on board the Tiangong 1 laboratory helps to make this extended mission possible.
Additional supplies carried on board Shenzhou 10 itself will allow its crew to live in space for even longer than the astronauts on Shenzhou 9, who carried out the first crew expedition to Tiangong 1 in 2012.
We also expect Shenzhou 10 to carry out the most tricky on-orbit operations ever performed by a Shenzhou spacecraft. The spacecraft is expected to test different angles of approach to its docking with Tiangong, and will also fly in close formation to allow a photographic survey of the module. This will require careful control and navigation.
One additional factor on Earth is also worth noting. Shenzhou 10 is the first high-profile space launch to fly since Xi Jinping assumed the Presidency of China. Sinologists will be watching his activities during the mission to possibly glean clues about his leadership, although any such evidence will probably be speculative.
Mr Xi kept his cards fairly close to his chest before assuming the Presidency. Months after his ascendancy, Sinologists are still trying to work him out. Even the recent "summit" with US President Obama has been cryptic to decode for external observers.
More participation in the Shenzhou 10 mission by Mr Xi could lead to some interesting theories. It could suggest that China's new leadership intends to promote the space program more heavily to boost faith in the Chinese Communist Party, or shine some glory on Mr Xi himself. Exactly how Shenzhou 10 is promoted by officialdom and China's state-run media will test this suggestion.
There was relatively little reportage on the mission in the weeks leading up to the launch of Shenzhou 10, causing this analyst to suspect that some sort of policy change had been enacted. Will the code of silence change as the mission progresses?
This leads to another issue. Will China promote the mission more heavily to the international media in China itself? Gaining access to China's space program has always been notoriously difficult for foreign journalists. At one stage, China seemed to be opening up a bit more when the Shenzhou 7 spacewalk mission was launched, and a special media centre for foreign journalists was established.
There seemed to be a slight retreat from such openness for the missions that followed, and this Sydney-based analyst found himself answering questions from foreign correspondents in China who were stonewalled by local officials! So far, China has proven to be no more open to the international media for Shenzhou 10 than in the past, and once again, journalists in Bejing are contacting this writer.
There's another reason to savour the flight of Shenzhou 10. This will be the last Chinese human space mission for quite some time. We have been spoiled recently with the flight of Shenzhou 9 in 2012, followed by another human space mission this year. This is a very brisk rate of launches for China, where gaps of at least two years, and more commonly around three years, have appeared between astronaut missions.
China will not launch any more crews to the Tiangong 1 space laboratory, and will go quiet on human spaceflight for a while. The next sequence of Shenzhou missions is expected to fly to the Tiangong 2 laboratory, which itself will probably not be launched until around 2015 or possibly later. The gap between the flight of Shenzhou 10 and Shenzhou 11 could ultimately prove to be the longest hiatus in Chinese human spaceflight to date! So enjoy the fun while it lasts.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has covered the Shenzhou program for spacedaily.com since 1999. 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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