China Blasts First Space Lab Tiangong 1 to Orbit

by Ken Kremer on September 29, 2011

A Long March-2FT1 carrier rocket loaded with Tiangong-1 unmanned space lab module blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, Sept. 29, 2011. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)

China launched their first space station module into orbit today (Sept. 29), marking a major milestone in the rapidly expanding Chinese space program. The historic liftoff of the man rated Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace 1) space lab on a Long March 2F rocket took place at 9:16 p.m. local time (9:16 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in Gansu province in northwest China and is an impressive advance for China.

The beautiful nighttime liftoff occurred exactly on time and was carried live on China’s state run television – CCTV – and on the internet for all to see. Chinese President Hu Jintao and many of China’s other top government leaders witnessed the launch from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center as a gesture of confidence and support. Their presence was a clear sign of just how important China’s top leadership considers investments in research as a major driver of technological innovation that is bolstering China’s vigorously growing economy and employing tens of thousands of people.

The US – in sharp contrast – is cutting space spending and handing out pink slips to many thousands of shuttle workers, CCTV noted.

As a CCTV commentator said after the successful Tiangong 1 launch, “30 Years ago it was ‘science fiction’ to imagine a Chinese astronaut in space. Today it’s a reality!”

Long range cameras tracked rocket for several minutes and clearly showed the jettisoning of the first stage boosters and the payload fairing.

“The launch of Tiangong 1 has been successfully completed,” announced Gen. Chang Wanquan, chief commander of China’s manned space engineering project on CCTV

Liftoff of March 2F rocket with Tiangong 1 space lab on Sept. 29, 2011. Credit: CCTV

Tiangiong 1 will serve a crucial role as a docking target to carry out China’s first rendezvous and docking in space- initially with an unmanned vehicle and thereafter with astronauts crews. The US and the Soviet Union mastered these technologies back in the 1960’s, and China is rapidly catching up now.

Rendezvous and docking are key accomplishments that China must achieve in order to move forward and accomplish even more ambitious space goals – construction of a 60 ton space station by the year 2020.

The two stage Long March 2F rocket was upgraded with more than 170 improvements including a larger payload fairing to house bigger Tiangong 1 module, four longer liquid fueled strap on boosters with more powerful thrust capability and more precise guidance systems.

The 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 was designed to stay in space for at least 2 years and support crews of up to three astronauts for short duration stays. It will be the target of at least three upcoming space missions – Shenzhou 8, 9 and 10.

China’s Long March 2F rocket blasts Tiangong 1 to orbit on Sept. 29, 2011. Credit: CCTV

Shenzhou is China’s human spaceflight capsule, derived from the Russian Soyuz and also significantly upgraded with China’s own nationally developed technology.

The unmanned Shenzhou 8 will launch in about 1 month according to officials from the China Manned Space Engineering Office and reach the vicinity of Tiangong 1 after 2 days. Shenzhou 8 will conduct at least two practice test dockings to extensively check out all systems and experience.

Shenzhou 9 and 10 will dock during 2012 and are likely to include the first female Chinese astronaut.

Tiangong 1 is a prototype miniture space station module, not fully outfitted for long duration stays of astronauts. The space lab consists of two segments – a forward habitable, pressurized section for the astronauts (measuring some 530 cubic feet in volume) and an unpressurized resource compartment in the rear with two solar arrays consisting of four segments to provide ample power.

Historic liftoff of China’s first man rated Tiangong 1 space module atop a Long March 2F rocket on Sept. 29, 2011 at 9:16 p.m. local time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province, China. Credit: CCTV

Read Ken’s related feature about Tiangong 1
China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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