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On Course for Shenzhou 10
by Dr Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) May 01, 2013

The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft is a duplicate of the Shenzhou 8 and 9 spacecraft, produced to the same design and manufactured roughly in parallel to its predecessors.

In a matter of weeks, the longest Chinese human space mission to date will lift off from a launchpad in Jiuquan. The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft will carry two men and one woman to a rendezvous with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory.

So far, everything seems to be on course for the launch of Shenzhou 10. We have heard no reports of technical problems and we have no reason to suspect that there are any major issues that would affect the mission.

The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft is a duplicate of the Shenzhou 8 and 9 spacecraft, produced to the same design and manufactured roughly in parallel to its predecessors. Its predecessors both performed well on their missions, which also involved dockings with Tiangong 1. We can expect a similar level of reliability from Shenzhou 10, both from its design heritage and the experience China has gained with these previous missions.

Let's turn our attention to Tiangong 1. This small laboratory module, marginally larger than the Shenzhou spacecraft that fly to it, has been quietly circling the Earth for months without a crew.

Tiangong 1 has received little media coverage since Shenzhou 9 completed its expedition to the module last year, but it would have continued to be monitored closely by mission controllers.

Previous Chinese media coverage suggests that Tiangong's vital signs can be monitored explicitly, with everything from the state of the cabin atmosphere to its power levels being checked. China would not be preparing Shenzhou 10 for launch if they suspected anything was amiss with Tiangong 1.

Now to the rocket. Shenzhou 10 will be launched by the Long March 2F launch vehicle, which has now launched several times with no major problems. The vehicle has been progressively tweaked and improved over more than a decade of operation, and now seems to be truly mature. Again, we can expect a flawless launch.

There are no major uncertainties or concerns over the state of the hardware for this mission. That's good. But mysteries still remain in areas that aren't so critical.

We still don't know for sure who will be on board the spacecraft. China had earlier confirmed that a woman would be aboard, and it was easy to conclude that she would be Wang Yaping. Wang is one of only two women in China's astronaut corps.

Her colleague, Liu Yang, became China's first woman in space on the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012. This analyst does not expect her to fly again on this mission, or any others. So Wang is probably an easy bet for the flight.

We are less certain about the two men who will be on the mission, but we can make some educated guesses. The mission commander will probably be an experienced astronaut, in keeping with recent trends in Chinese space launches.

The other will probably be a rookie astronaut. With this in mind, several analysts (including this writer) placed their bets on Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang.

Together with the aforementioned Wang Yaping, Nie and Zhang constituted the back-up crew for Shenzhou 9. It would be logical to move this crew to the prime position for Shenzhou 10, which is flying a very similar mission profile to Shenzhou 9. And yes, we have a veteran and a rookie. Nie Haisheng flew on Shenzhou 6, while Zhang Xiaoguang has not flown before.

There is probably a back-up crew for Shenzhou 10 that consists of three men, with one veteran astronaut and two rookies. It is more difficult to guess their identities.

Of course, we could still be wrong in our guesses about the prime crew for Shenzhou 10. We are also not sure of all the details of the upcoming mission. We know it will be longer and more complex than Shenzhou 9. We know that there will be some on-orbit maneuvering around the Tiangong laboratory.

We also know that the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft will carry additional supplies to compensate for the dwindling logistics aboard Tiangong 1. Beyond this, we don't know much for sure.

Crew activities on board Tiangong 1 will probably look very similar to the Shenzhou 9 expedition. Two astronauts will sleep on Tiangong while the third will stay on board Shenzhou 10, ready to act in the event of an emergency evacuation of the laboratory.

There will probably be more experimental work carried out during the longer stay aboard Tiangong. Some of the experiments could be more complex, and could involve the use of gear carried to Tiangong on board Shenzhou 10. As before, there will be extensive monitoring of the medical conditions of the astronauts themselves.

Most of these questions will be answered as the mission unfolds. We can expect extensive photography and video downlinks of the spacecraft and its crew during the flight. China handled the television coverage of critical events well during the last flight. We hope they will deliver the same results this time.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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