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Monday, November 28, 2011

Moving to the next frontier of space programme

China astronaut Zhai Zhigang. Taken at the Chi...                      Image via Wikipedia


CHINA is moving in the right direction to build a 60-tonne space station around 2020.

On Nov 3, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 shuttle docked with Tiangong-1, which is China’s first space lab module, after travelling 343km in orbit.

The shuttle separated from the target spacecraft after 12 days and carried out its second docking on Nov 14. Two days later, Shenzhou 8 left Tiangong-1 and returned to Earth as scheduled.

News from the China Manned Space Engineering Office is that Tiangong-1 has continued its voyage at a height of 370km smoothly and transferred into a long-term operational mode.

The space lab module will wait for docking with the manned Shenzhou 9 and 10 sometime next year.

According to the office’s vice-director Wang Zhaoyao, during the flight of Shenzhou 8 its general biological experimental device functioned normally and 17 samples of Sino-Germany cooperative space life science experiments were recovered after the shuttle landed at the recovery site in Inner Mongolia.

He said Tiangong-1 had also carried out a series of experiments and tests as scheduled, including space-to-earth remote sensing exploration application experiment, space materials scientific experiment and space environment and physical detection tests.

“This space rendezvous and mission has fully realised its objective of ‘accurate entry into orbit, precise docking, stable assembly operation and safe return’.

“It marks a critical breakthrough for China’s space technology and set a milestone for our manned space development,” he told a press conference recently.

Wang said Tiangong-1, launched into orbit on Sept 29, was designed with a lifespan of more than two years and it would be well maintained until its following docking operations next year.

Under China’s space programme, after completing its first round of missions, Tiangong-1 will return to earth in 2013. It will be replaced by the larger Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 modules which will conduct more sophisticated space probes.

Tiangong-3 will probably be a 60-tonne full-size space station to be manned by astronauts.

The China’s Manned Space Engineering Office maintained that China is not working on the space station development alone and the country always welcomed other nations.

“We emphasise independent development but never said we want to develop in isolation. The development and operation of China’s space station are open to foreign colleagues and experts in the field on the principle of mutual respect and benefit, transparency and openness,” Wang said.

China has had fruitful space cooperation with Russia, Germany, France and other nations.

China would like to be involved in the building of the International Space Station together six other space agencies but because of various reasons, China remains excluded from the programme, he added.

He also refuted claims that China’s manned space programmes had military functions.

“We can say that none of the eight Shenzhou missions had direct military applications. But, we all know that space-related technological developments can be used in civilian and military sectors.

“For example, a communications satellite can be used for TV broadcasting and military communication. So it depends on what you use it for,” he added.

Wang hoped that critics would be responsible and fair when criticising China’s space programmes.

“The United States and some media have been criticising our space exploration programme and development saying is not transparent enough. First of all, they have to be fair in their comments.

“Last year, I accompanied Nasa administrator Charles Bolden for a tour of our space programme facilities, laboratories and launching centres in China. He was pleased on how transparent we were,” he said.

China’s space programme consists of three stages. Phase 1 saw the historic launch of the unmanned Shenzhou 1 shuttle in 1999 for missions to conduct space experiments. It was followed by the launch of Shenzhou 2, Shenzhou 3, Shenzhou 4, Shenzhou 5, Shenzhou 6 and Shenzhou 7.

The Shenzhou 7 mission, China’s third manned spacecraft, was the most historic when Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang became the first man from China to do a spacewalk on Sept 27, 2008. It marked a successful extra-vehicular activity (EVA) mission for China.

Phase 2 began with the launch of the Tiangong-1 space module. One of the main missions during this phase will be the docking of a manned space shuttle with the space lab.

The space programme administration will decide between Shenzhou 9 and 10 which one will be manned by China’s first female astronaut next year.

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