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Patience for Tiangong
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 22, 2012

The mission of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, which carried the first crew to Tiangong 1, has been documented as a clear success. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of data, both technical and crew- related, to pore over yet.

We are now several months beyond the first crewed expedition to Tiangong 1, China's first space laboratory. If educated guesses are any guide, we are probably several months away from the next expedition, which will fly some time next year. This is a quiet period in the life of Tiangong 1, as the dissection of the first expedition slows down and we await the build-up to the next mission.

Let's consider the state of the space laboratory. Analysts have watched it periodically boost its orbit and then slowly fall, as China keeps its laboratory aloft and ready for another crew.

The few indicators we have suggest that it's a healthy spacecraft that should remain spaceworthy for a long time. The interior of the laboratory was basically mothballed at the end of the first expedition, and nothing inside has presumably changed.

Mission controllers are monitoring the state of the cabin atmosphere and the performance of its sub-systems. Tiangong also has two Earth observation cameras that have probably been in use, but little has been said about this.

The mission of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, which carried the first crew to Tiangong 1, has been documented as a clear success. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of data, both technical and crew- related, to pore over.

The relative lack of public discussions probably contrasts with some fastidious analytical work that has been conducted behind closed doors. Some procedures or parameters may be changed on the next mission, possibly to improve the performance of some tasks, or simply to see how alternatives work out.

We still have no more information on the crew that's intended for Shenzhou 10, the spacecraft that will carry the second expedition to Tiangong 1. This analyst has previously suggested that the crew will consist of the astronauts who served as back-ups for the Shenzhou 9 mission.

This would save time and effort in forming new teams for a mission that will follow much of the same basic plan as the Shenzhou 9 flight. However, China may yet surprise us with a new set of astronauts.

China has hinted that the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft will conduct a fly-around of the Tiangong 1 laboratory, a feat that requires precise control of the spacecraft. With several successful dockings now under their belt, there seems no reason to expect that a fly-around will be a problem for the Shenzhou spacecraft and its crew.

Apart from demonstrating precision flying, this will also allow inspection and photography of the exterior of the Tiangong 1 module. The state of the vehicle will provide important lessons as China prepares for future launches in its space laboratory program.

We can also expect that the crew of Shenzhou 10 will perform more experimental work than the first expedition. The Shenzhou 9 crew spent much of their time simply testing the basic habitability of Tiangong 1.

The next crew will not need to be so cautious, and will be able to perform more practical tasks. It's also possible that some of the routines performed by the Shenzhou 9 crew will not be repeated on the next expedition, if China has decided that Tiangong is completely safe and reliable.

There are more questions than answers right now about the mission of Shenzhou 10, and the tasks of the second expedition to Tiangong 1. Patience is a virtue during this phase between expeditions.

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


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