China’s historic first docking mission in space ended in a complete success today (Nov. 17) following the safe landing of the unmanned Shenzhou-8 in Inner Mongolia. Today’s landing will robustly propel China’s space program forward and sets the stage for an ambitious agenda of human spaceflight missions in 2012 to the Tiangong-1 Space Lab and eventually to a hefty 100 ton Earth orbiting Space Station to be assembled by 2020.
Shenzhou-8 was launched to low Earth orbit on Nov. 1 atop a Long March 2F booster from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert and successfully conducted China’s first ever rendezvous and docking mission in space with the nation’s Tiangong-1 Space Lab module on Nov. 3 while orbiting some 343 kilometers in altitude above Earth.
Gen. Chang Wanquan, the Commander in Chief of China’s human spaceflight program said, “The Shenzhou-8 capsule has safely returned to the main landing site at Inner Mongolia and the Tiangong-1/Shenzhou-8 rendezvous and docking mission has achieved full success!”
Chang leads the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) Project, the nation’s human spaceflight program. He is the Commanding Officer of the Tiangong-1/Shenzhou-8 Rendezvous and Docking Mission Headquarters, and director of the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) General Armaments Department. The People Liberation Army directs China’s human spaceflight program.
Shenzhou-8 landed today at 7:30 pm. Beijing time in central Asia after flying nearly 17 days in earth orbit. Recovery crews reached the capsule within a few minutes of the parachute assisted touchdown.
Most of the flight was spent linked up to the Tiangong-1 Space Lab module – China’s first prototype space station.
After 12 days of joint orbital operations, Shenzhou-8 carried out a 2nd docking test to enable Chinese space engineers and mission controllers to gain further practice and experience in mastering the complex techniques involved in rendezvous and docking in space.
Shenzhou-8 disengaged from Tiangong-1 on Nov. 14, backed off to a distance of 140 meters (460 ft) and then carried out a re-docking about 30 minutes later. Controllers at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center monitored systems as Shenzhou-8 automatically re-approached Tiangong-1 for the second link up.
The main purpose of the second docking test was to confirm the performance of the rendezvous and docking procedures and hardware on Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 under conditions of the glare of sunlight which are different compared to nighttime conditions of the first docking attempt.
Although the Shenzhou-8 flew unmanned during this flight, the capsule was fully human rated – even food and water are stored on board to simulate the presence of a human crew.
Today’s success sets the stage for possibly two Chinese manned missions to follow in 2012, namely Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10.
Each Shenzhou can carry two or three astronauts. One of the missions is highly likely to include the first female Chinese astronaut.
Read Ken’s features about Shenzhou-8 & Tiangong-1
China completes 2nd Docking to Space Lab and sets Path to Manned flights in 2012
China Technology Surges Forward with Spectacular First Docking in Space
China launches Shenzhou-8 bound for Historic 1st Docking in Space
Shenzhou-8 rolled out for Blastoff to China’s 1st Space Station on November 1
Bizarre Video: China’s Tiangong 1 Space Lab Animation set to ‘America the Beautiful’ Soundtrack
China Blasts First Space Lab Tiangong 1 to Orbit
China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad
Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science 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, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight – www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter