A modified model of the Long March CZ-2F rocket carrying the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, 01 November 2011. The spacecraft was sent into the designated orbit after the blastoff at 5:58 a.m. from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest Gobi desert, carried by an upgraded Long March-2F rocket. It is heading for rendezvous with Tiangong-1, or "the Heavenly Palace" that was put into space on Sept. 29 for the country's first space docking.
The move, if successful, will pave the way for China to operate a permanent space station around 2020 and make the nation the world's third to do so. Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang viewed the launch at the Jiuquan center. The launch was also observed on site by senior officials from the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center.
The docking was scheduled to occur within two days after the launch of Shenzhou-8 and at a height of 343 km above the Earth's surface. It would return to the Earth after two docking tryouts. Chinese and German scientists would conduct 17 life science space experiments on the Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou-8, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program, said.
To ensure the success of the mission, Chinese space engineers have made "considerable modifications" on Shenzhou-8 to previous versions of the spacecraft. Shenzhou-8, with a length of nine meters and a maximum diameter of 2.8 meters, has a liftoff weight of 8.082 tonnes. "More than half of the 600 or so sets of equipment have been modified, while newly designed devices account for about 15 percent of the total," Wu said. The modifications were mainly aimed at arming the spacecraft with automatic and manual rendezvous and docking capacities, and enhancing the vehicle's performance, safety and reliability, Wu said. "After the improvements, the spacecraft would be able to connect with the target spacecraft Tiangong-1 for 180 days," Wu said.
The docking system, developed by Chinese, is compatible with the docking mechanism and structure used on the International Space Station, the Soyuz spaceship and space shuttles, Tao noted, adding that future international cooperations in space project would be convenient in light of that. The unmanned spacecraft is also equipped with devices for recording real images and mechanical parameters during its flight, to test the space docking before a manned attempt. Commander-in-chief of China's manned space program Chang Wanquan announced the evening of 17 November 2011 that the nation's first-ever space rendezvous and docking mission was a complete success. China's unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 landed in north China after completing the country's first-ever space docking mission. The Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft re-docked with the Tiangong-1 space lab 14 November 2011.
Once China had mastered the technologies of rendezvous and docking, it would be equipped with the basic technologies and capacity required for building a space station, said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program. The mission would be followed by launches of spaceships Shenzhou-9 and -10 in 2012, which were also expected to dock with Tiangong-1. "At least one mission of the two would be manned," Wu said.
The crew members, including probably two female astronauts, had already been selected for the possible manual space docking mission in 2012 and are being trained for manual docking skills. The space docking tests and experiments would provide crucial experience of China's construction of a 60-tonne permanent manned space station around 2020 when Chinese astronauts are expected to operate more research projects in space. "It would make it possible for China to carry out space exploration of a larger scale," Zhou said.
Unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 landed safely by parachute in China's northern grasslands. The safe return of Shenzhou-8 to Earth marked the end of the 49-day space docking mission, which would pave the way for China's establishment of a manned space station around 2020.
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