Three Chinese astronauts successfully docked their Shezhou 9 spacecraft with the Tiangong-1 orbiting test module on Monday, marking a major milestone in the country’s plan to construct a manned, orbital space station by the early 2020s. China now joins Russia and the United States as the only nations to have docked a manned spacecraft.
Monday’s maneuver was performed in automatic mode, but over the course of the planned 13-day mission, the astronauts, or taikonauts as they’re known in China, will decouple their craft from the research module and attempt to re-link the two manually.
Launched June 16, atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, the Shenzhou 9 mission is China’s first manned mission since 2008, and the first to carry a female astronaut into space – an air force pilot named Liu Yang.
While the Chinese space program is decades behind that of the U.S., Russia and the international consortium that built the current International Space Station (ISS), it may well be on the cutting edge sometime in the next decade. China’s space station is scheduled to be completed about 10 years from now — just about the time the ISS is reaching the end of its useful lifetime — in which case, the Chinese could have the only functional space station in orbit.
Since the launch of its first manned spacecraft in 2003, the rapid progress of China’s manned program represents a remarkable accomplishment, even as it owes much to the groundbreaking work done by Russia and the U.S. over the course of the past five decades.
Rendezvousing with an orbiting craft, for example, presented real challenges for the U.S. and Russia — such as the problem of how to intercept an orbiting target when increasing the speed of the approaching craft raises it to a higher orbit. Those methods are now proven and well established.
Even the design of the Shenzhou capsule borrows heavily from Russia’s Soyuz capsule. Both carry 3 astronauts and consist of three modules: a crew capsule, a propulsion module, and an orbital module.
The Chinese have, however, made significant modifications to the Russian design. For example, unlike Soyuz, the orbital module of the Shenzhou incorporates solar panels that allow it remain in orbit after the crew capsule has returned its astronauts to Earth.
With the success of Monday’s docking and the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet, only China and Russia are currently capable of launching manned missions.
The Shenzhou 9 is China’s fourth manned mission. It’s first unmanned docking was conducted only last November.