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Shenzhou 9 Behind the Curtain
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jan 19, 2012

Despite its name, the Tiangong 1 "space laboratory" is more like a small habitation module, and does not carry a lot of laboratory equipment. Nevertheless, scientific work will be carried out. Much of it will probably be physiological studies of the astronauts themselves.

The first crew to fly to a Chinese space laboratory could lift off within three months. The launch of the Shenzhou 9 mission to the Tiangong 1 module could take place at the end of March or early April. Preparations for the flight are well underway, but for the moment, most aspects of Shenzhou 9 remain behind a curtain of secrecy.

There have been some vague media statements about the mission this year. So far, the only new thing we have learned is that the mission will last around 10 days. This is longer than any previous crewed Shenzhou flight.

The mission duration fits in fairly well with predictions by most analysts, who expected a flight of around two weeks. But it's still shorter than the Shenzhou 8 mission, which served as an uncrewed rehearsal for Shenzhou 9. Shenzhou 8 flew to a robotic docking with Tiangong 1 in November last year, and performed two rendezvous and docking tests.

The mission lasted around 17 days. At the time of the mission, this author suggested that Shenzhou 9 would remain aloft for the same time period. We now know that the next mission is shorter by roughly one week! The reduced mission for Shenzhou 9 will probably help to conserve logistics aboard the spacecraft, such as food, water and oxygen.

This revelation of a shorter mission could supply some more insight into the crew. Right now, there has been no official confirmation of the crew size. Some theories suggest there will be two astronauts aboard Shenzhou 9, while others suggest three aboard. This author is now gravitating further towards the three-astronaut plan. The shorter mission would allow a larger crew to fly without straining the logistics.

We also don't know the identities of the crew. The Chinese have probably nominated a "prime" and back-up crew by now, although details haven't been published. It seems likely that all the crew will be members of China's original 1998 class of astronaut trainees, who are getting closer to their use- by dates for age and physical fitness.

We can probably rule out Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, and Zhai Zhigang, China's first spacewalker, as prime flight candidates. These men are probably considered too valuable to risk on any further space missions. The next crew will probably feature at least two previously unflown "rookie" astronauts, and it's also possible that the entire crew will be "rookies".

Some statements have hinted that the astronauts won't necessarily enter the Tiangong module, but will merely dock with it. This is possible, but unlikely. Such comments probably reflect contingency plans, which will be enacted only in the event of problems. If everything goes normally, the astronauts will enter the laboratory and live aboard it.

We don't know exactly what the astronauts will do on board Tiangong, but we will certainly get to see a lot of it. The interior of the lab has a television camera, and Chinese television will probably devote a lot of time to the mission.

Despite its name, the Tiangong 1 "space laboratory" is more like a small habitation module, and does not carry a lot of laboratory equipment. Nevertheless, scientific work will be carried out. Much of it will probably be physiological studies of the astronauts themselves.

China will need to make some more statements on the mission fairly soon. They should feel confident about discussing the mission in greater detail, as the Shenzhou and Tiangong programs both seem very healthy. The Shenzhou 8 mission was highly successful, and suggests that Shenzhou 9 will also fly well. We await the mission eagerly.

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


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