Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Robotic Chinese craft achieve nation's first space docking

China moved one more step closer to their goal of building a manned space station earlier today with the docking in orbit of two robotic Chinese spacecraft. This is China’s first orbital docking, a crucial step to either the assembly of an orbiting outpost or in launching missions to other destinations.
China’s stated goal is to establish a permanent manned presence in space by the end of the decade. After a two-day orbital chase, the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft latched onto a prototype space lab module called Tiangong 1 at 1:30 p.m. ET (1:30 a.m. local time Thursday in China). Ten minutes later, Chinese space officials confirmed the docking had been completed.

China now joins an elite group that includes the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency, all of which have designed spacecraft capable of docking in orbit.

The Chinese spacecraft will circle Earth together for the next 12 days, then Shenzhou 8 will detach, retreat to a distance of about 460 feet (140 meters) from Tiangong 1, and dock again, to prove the effectiveness of their rendezvous and docking technology. That second docking is planned to last just two days, after which Shenzhou 8 will undock, and the craft's return module will then return to Earth in mid-November for inspection and analysis.

China views Shenzhou 8 and other upcoming docking missions as key steps in the nation's plan to assemble a manned space station in oribit by 2020. China's vision calls for a 66-ton structure — slightly smaller than the United States' Skylab station, which launched in 1973. In comparison, the International Space Station weighs about 431 tons.

The historic meet-up was designed to test technologies that China will use to assemble a space station in orbit, which the nation hopes to have up and running by 2020. The docking mission is considered so important to Chinese space plans that President Hu Jintao, who is attending the G20 summit in France, sent a statement that was read aloud at Chinese mission control.

Hu Jintao’s statement read in part:"Tiangong 1 has joined Shenzhou 8, has completed the rendezvous and docking process, and I announce the docking of Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 has been a complete success," said Chang Wanquan, chief commander of the China Manned Space Engineering Project. "We can never count on other countries to sell their mature technologies to us, so we have to rely on our own," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, told China's state news agency Xinhua before Shenzhou 8's Monday launch. "I'd like to send my congratulations and greetings to all those who have made this possible," the statement read in part. "To master the technology of rendezvous and docking will push forward China's manned space program."

Wednesday's Chinese spacecraft docking was the second orbital rendezvous of the day. Russia successfully docked a robotic cargo ship to the International Space Station at 7:40 a.m. ET.


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