by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jan 25, 2010
China's next manned space mission, expected in 2011, will carry three astronauts to China's first space laboratory. The laboratory module that will host them, dubbed Tiangong-1, is expected to fly in late 2010 or early 2011. China will then perform rendezvous and docking tests with an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft launched to Tiangong, to prove that astronauts can visit the lab.
The expedition to Tiangong is expected to last around two weeks. The astronauts are expected to spend most of their time performing experiments inside the laboratory. We don't know exactly what they will do, but one task can probably be ruled out. There will be no spacewalk conducted from Tiangong-1.
China conducted her first spacewalk on the Shenzhou 7 mission in October 2008. This mission involved the use of a Chinese "Feitian" spacesuit, which seems to have been inspired by the design of Russia's "Orlan" spacewalk suits. Shenzhou 7 carried one Feitian and one Orlan suit, which were donned by two crewmembers in the Shenzhou's orbital module. Zhai Zhigang became China's first spacewalker when he ventured outside in the Orlan suit.
Since then, no more Chinese astronauts have flown in space. We will probably wait more than another year before any more fly, and a lot longer before China conducts another spacewalk.
Spacewalking is difficult, dangerous and cumbersome. The spacesuits and equipment required for the Shenzhou 7 spacewalk took up a lot of room. Getting the suits ready and conducting the spacewalk were the main task to occupy the three Shenzhou 7 astronauts during their mission.
A trip to a small space laboratory for an extended period is probably enough to occupy China's next trio of astronauts. Logistical demands suggest that their spacecraft will not even carry spacesuits for extravehicular activity. They will have enough to work on with testing a new spacecraft, staying aloft for an extended mission, and performing a lengthy set of experimental tasks.
When will China's next spacewalk be attempted? It will probably not be on any flight associated with the Tiangong-1 laboratory. China has plans for future Tiangong space laboratories, to be launched in the decade ahead. At some point in the future, China could elect to conduct a spacewalk in conjunction with a Tiangong expedition. If handrails are noticed on pictures of Tiangong 2 or 3, it will be an obvious clue.
Conducting a spacewalk from a Tiangong mission will be a lot like the spacewalk on Shenzhou 7. Tiangong itself is small, and does not have a dedicated airlock. It's not even clear if there's an external hatch, apart from the docking system for Shenzhou. The crew will need to retreat to the Shenzhou spacecraft docked to Tiangong, which is used to carry them to the laboratory and return them home.
Next, two astronauts will don spacesuits in the Shenzhou Orbital Module, while the third astronaut retreats to Shenzhou's descent module. The Orbital Module will be sealed like an airlock, and the astronauts will emerge from its large external hatch. This will allow them to gain access to the exterior of the Tiangong laboratory as well as the Shenzhou.
Future Tiangong missions could hold external experiment packages, exposed to space. These could hold anything from biological samples to materials tests. Astronauts could be sent out to retrieve these experiments.
A short exposure experiment, involving a tray of space lubricants, was carried out on the Shenzhou 7 mission. Zhai retrieved this experiment soon after leaving the spacecraft. An experiment on Tiangong could be exposed to space for weeks or months before it was retrieved, making the results more valuable.
Dr Morris Jones has covered the Chinese space program for more than ten years. He is the author of "The New Moon Race" (Rosenberg Publishing: www.rosenbergpub.com.au).
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