For years now, the program to develop the X-37B spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecy. Originally intended as part of a NASA project to develop a reusable unmanned spacecraft, this Boeing-designed spaceplane was taken over by the Department of Defense in 2004. And while it has been successfully tested on multiple occasions, there remain some unanswered questions as to its intended purpose and what has been taking place during these flights.
This, predictably, has lead to all kinds of rumors and speculation, with some suggesting that it could be a spy plane while others think that it is intended to deliver space-based weapons. It’s latest mission – which was dubbed OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4) – has been especially clandestine. And after nearly a year in orbit, it remains unclear what the X37B has been doing up there all this time.
Riding atop a fiery Long March rocket, three taikonauts blasted off from Earth today (June 11) to kick off an expected 15-day mission in space that will include the first Chinese “space class” from orbit.
Shenzhou 10 departed the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 5:38 a.m. EDT (9:38 a.m. UTC), or 5:38 p.m. local time at the complex’s location in the Gobi desert. Aboard the spacecraft were one woman (Wang Yaping) and two men (Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang). Their next destination is the Chinese Tiangong-1 station.
China has a young manned space program. The first spaceflight with people was just a decade ago, in October 2003, and this is the fifth crewed mission since that time.
Shenzhou 10’s ultimate destination, however, is the Earth-orbiting, nine-ton Tiangong-1. Like the early U.S. and Soviet space stations, the Chinese one is fairly small (a single module) and serves as an experimental testbed for space station work. Taikonauts also visited the space station during Shenzhou 9 in 2012.
– Launch crew and cargo aboard Shenzhou 10 and verify rendezvous and docking technology for the meeting with Tiangong-1;
– Further test Tiangong-1’s capabilities to support humans;
– Conduct several experiments (focusing on space adaptability, space operation ergonomics and unspecified space science work), perform maintenance and do a “space class” with students;
– To see how well the CMSE is performing on a systems basis.
“To further improve the safety, reliability and to be suitable for the specific requirements of this mission,” stated spokesperson Wu Ping, “partial technical alterations have been made in [the] Shenzhou 10 spaceship and Long March 2F Y10 rocket.
“During this mission,” she added, “taikonauts will change and repair some of the equipment and facilities in Tiangong-1 through on-orbit operations.”
In the first few hours after launch, the CMSE stated that all systems are performing normally.
“The Shenzhou 10 spaceship has accurately entered its orbit and the crew members [are] in good condition,” stated Zhang Youxia, chief commander of China’s manned space program.
The mission drew praise from China’s president, Xi Jinping, who sent the crew good wishes just before they left Earth.
“You have made Chinese people feel proud of ourselves,” Xi told the crew, according to a BBC report.
“You have trained and prepared yourselves carefully and thoroughly, so I am confident in your completing the mission successfully. I wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.”
China ultimately plans to launch a larger space station sometime around 2020, which would include several modules.
The European Space Agency is considering working more closely with China around that time, the BBC added, and some astronauts have already starting Chinese language training.
The crew of the Chinese Shenzhou-9 spacecraft docked today with the Tiangong-1 mini-spacelab and the three taikonauts entered the small spacelab for the first time. China becomes only the third nation to have a manned craft rendezvous and dock with another spacecraft, behind the U.S. and Russia. Commander Jing Haipeng led the crew into the lab, followed by Liu Wang and then later Liu Yang, China’s first female taikonaut. The Shenzhou capsule completed the docking maneuvers shortly after 0600 UTC (2 am EDT). The two spacecraft are about 343 kilometers (213 miles) above Earth. The docking was shown live on national television.
This docking was automated and monitored by China’s mission control. A manual docking by the crew will be done later in the mission.
China will launch a three-person crew on Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 10:37 UTC (6:37 a.m. EDT) on board a Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, heading to the Tiangong 1 spacelab. The crew includes Liu Yang, the first female Chinese taikonaut. With her will be Jing Haipeng, the commander and a veteran of two other spaceflights and Liu Wang. This will be the first manned docking to the Tiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace), which was launched in September 2011.
The Shenzhou 9 will launch from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in the Gobi desert in western China.
Yang is a 33-year-old fighter pilot and said during a broadcast interview, “From day one I have been told I am no different from the male astronauts…I believe in persevering. If you persevere, success lies ahead of you.”
Liu joined the taikonaut training program in May 2010 and was selected as a possible candidate for the docking mission after she excelled in testing, according to the Xinhua news agency.
She initially trained as a cargo pilot and has been praised for her cool handling of an incident when her jet hit a flock of pigeons but she was still able to land the heavily damaged aircraft.
At a press conference, the three taikonauts were behind a glass wall before a small group of hand-picked journalists. They said the manual docking was a “huge test,” but that they had rehearsed the procedure more than 1,500 times.
“The three of us understand each other tacitly. One glance, one facial expression, one movement, we understand each other thoroughly,” said Jing.
Once Shenzhou 9 reaches the vicinity of Tiangong 1, the crew will perform a manual docking, but the Chinese space agency has said future missions will have automated dockings.
Some reports have indicated the Shenzhou spacecraft is designed with a common docking system that would allow it to dock with the International Space Station in the future should China be invited to visit.
Once on board the Taingong 1, the crew will do some medical research and conduct other research including monitoring live butterflies and butterfly eggs and pupae.
China has said they hope to add more modules to their space station, with a final version of it built by 2020. A white paper released last December outlining China’s ambitious space program said the country “will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.”
Lead image caption: China’s astronauts Jing Haipeng (C), Liu Wang (R) and Liu Yang meet with media in Jiuquan, China on June 15, 2012. The three astronauts will board Shenzhou-9 spacecraft on Saturday for China’s first manned space docking mission. Credit: Xinhua/Wang Jianmin
Second image caption: An artists rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, the first part of China’s space station. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA
The Chinese government has announced they will launch three taikonauts sometime in mid-June 2012, on the first manned mission to dock with their orbiting experimental module, and confirmed again that the crew might include China’s first female space traveler. A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was moved to a launch pad in China’s desert northwest over the weekend, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported.
The three-member crew will dock with and live inside the Tiangong 1 (or Heavenly Palace-1) orbital module launched last year. No word on how long the mission will be. We reported in March that the crew possibly could include a woman, and Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of the country’s manned space program, said the final selection would depend on conditions nearer the time of launch.
This type of late announcement of the crew is not unprecedented – in the past, China’s space program has named the crew for the next mission just a few days before launch.
From previous reports, China picked two women and five men from thousands of candidates to become the second batch of seven astronaut trainees in 2010. Both of the women were former fighter jet pilots.
“The manned space program would not be complete without women’s participation,” Jiao Weixin, an earth and space scientist with Peking University, was quoted as saying.
China launched their first human mission in 2003. They have launched two other human missions, one of which included a space walk in 2008.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s human space program, said that the mission will be “a significant step in China’s space history”, because it’s the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to send astronauts into a space lab, instead of just carrying them to circle the Earth as in the previous three manned missions, the Chinese Daily reported.
During the flight, one crew member will remain aboard the Shenzhou 9 “as a precautionary measure in case of emergency” while the others enter Tiangong 1, Xinhua said.
We’ll keep you updated on any announcements of the crew or when the launch will take place.
The Chinese government last year announced a 5-year plan for space exploration that includes collecting samples from the Moon by 2016.
Astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault has made a name for himself with his images of spacecraft transiting across the face of the Sun. He has done it again by capturing the first-ever image of the Tiangong-1 space station transiting the Sun. The monster sunspot, AR 1476 absolutely dwarfs the Chinese space station (inside the circle), but you can see incredible details of the Tiangong-1 below in a zoomed-in version. Legault had less than a second to capture the event, with the Tiangong traveling at 7.4km/s (26500 km/h or 16500 mph,) the transit duration was only 0.9 seconds! The size of the station is pretty small — as without solar panels the first module of the Tiangong measures just 10.3 x 3.3 meters.
Legault’s equipment was a Takahashi FSQ-106 refractor, a Baader Herschel prism and Canon 5D Mark II camera. Exposure of 1/8000s at 100 ISO.
As Legault told us in an interview earlier this year, in order to capture such images he studies maps, uses CalSky software, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.
“My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time,” he said. “I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!”
For a transit event, he gets a total of 16 images – 4 images every second, and only after he enlarges the images will he know if he succeeded or not.
“There is a kind of feeling that is short and intense — an adrenaline rush!” Legault said. “I suppose it is much like participating in a sport, but the feeling is addictive.”
Thanks to Thierry for sharing his latest success, and you can see larger versions of these images, and much more at his website.
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.
Chinese space prowess took another major leap forward today (Nov. 14) when the unmanned Shenzhou-8 capsule successfully re-docked with China’s Tiangong-1 space lab while speeding through space and orbiting some 343 km above Earth. Today’s events pave the way for China to rapidly ramp up their human space program and loft up to two manned flights to the space lab module in 2012.
The re-docking marked only the 2nd time that China had accomplished a successful space docking, a critical technical milestone that opens the door to China’s real ambition of assembling a 100 ton operational Space Station in low Earth orbit by 2020 – about the time when the ISS might be decommissioned.
Shenzhou-8 was launched to orbit on Nov. 1 atop a Long March 2F booster rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in northwest China. The two Chinese built spacecraft have been joined together for 12 days.
Today’s goal was to give Chinese engineers more practice and confidence in mastering the complex maneuvers required for rendezvous and docking two vehicles in space. It was carried out in daylight conditions as opposed to the nighttime conditions for the initial docking to expand the testing envelope under different scenarios.
Shenzhou-8 first disengaged from the prototype space station at about 6:37 a.m. EST and then withdrew to a distance of about 140 meters (460 ft). About 30 minutes later, mission controllers at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center monitored Shenzhou-8 as it automatically approached Tiangong-1 and completed the second docking – or “Space Kiss” as the Chinese media fondly say – at about 6:53 a.m. EST.
The combined Shenzhou-8/Tiangong-1 orbiting complex is some 20 meter in length and weighs about 16 tons. Each vehicle weighs some 8 tons. Tiangong-1 is 10.4 m in length and 3.3. m in diameter. Shenzhou-8 is 9.2 m in length
Shenzhou is China’s manned space capsule but flew this flight with no humans aboard because Chinese space officials felt it was safer and prudent and did not want to expose astronauts to excessive risk during the unprecedented docking attempts.
Following today’s complete success, the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) Project is pushing ahead with plans to launch up to two manned missions to Tiangong-1 in 2012 – namely Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 which are already under construction.
Both 2012 missions would be short duration flights of a few days or weeks since the Tiangong-1 module is a prototype space station module and not outfitted for long duration flights.
CMSE is evaluating a pool of Chinese astronauts already in training – including two women – for the two flights. Both women candidates are married and about 30 years of age but have not been publically identified.
It seems highly likely that one of the Shenzhou missions will include the first female Chinese astronaut.
So far China has launched six astronauts on three manned Shenzhou capsules between 2003 and 2008.
The docking mechanism on Shenzhou-8 was developed and manufactured in China, says Wu Ping, spokeswoman for the CMSE.
In two days, Shenzhou-8 is due to undock from Tiangong-1 for the final time and initiate the fiery re-entry to Earth on Nov. 17. The descent capsule will land by parachute.
These historic feats prove that China’s manufacturing and technological capabilities are surging forward and rapidly matching the Western powers and Japan in a broad swath of scientific and technical fields.
Since the forced retirement of NASA’s functioning space shuttle orbiters, only China and Russia can launch people into space.
Video animation caption: Chinese spacecraft to ‘kiss’ in space. Credit: NMANewsDirect
Video Caption: Live Video of Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 docking in Earth orbit. Photos below. Credit: CCTV commentary/CMSE
China’s technological capabilities took a major surge forward with the successful docking in space today for the first time ever of two Chinese built and launched spaceships – orbiting some 343 kilometers in the heavens above at 1:37 a.m. Beijing time Nov. 3(1:37 p.m. EDT, Nov. 2). China’s goal is to build a fully operational space station in Earth orbit by 2020 – about the time when the ISS may be retired.
Today’s space spectacular joining together the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 prototype space station was an historic feat for China, which now becomes only the 3rd country to accomplish a rendezvous and docking of spacecraft in Earth orbit.
Shenzhou is China’s manned spaceflight capsule but is flying without a crew for this particular test flight. The prowess demonstrated with this triumph paves the way for further manned Shenzhou’s launches soon.
The remarkable space milestone follows in the footsteps of what the United States and Russia accomplished decades ago but this was carried out with 21st century science, technology and manufacturing abilities developed by China during the nation’s rapid rise over the past few decades to become the world’s 2nd most powerful economy.
Shenzhou 8 has been chasing Tiangong-1 in orbit for two days since it was launched on Nov. 1 atop a Long March 2F booster rocket from the Gobi desert in northwest China.
The Commander-in-chief of China´s manned space program Gen. Chang Wanquan, announced “China’s first rendezvous and docking in space joining together the spacecraft Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 space lab module was a complete success.” Chang leads the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) Project and pronounced the achievement at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.
Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a congratulatory message from the G-20 summit in Cannes, France. “I am very pleased to hear the news and I send congratulations to all who made this possible. This will push China’s manned space program forward.”
The landmark rendezvous and docking was carried live by state run CCTV for all the world to watch. The impressive 2 hour long TV broadcast showed simultaneous and breathtaking camera videos from both the unpiloted Shenzhou-8 capsule and the Tiangong-1 space station module as they viewed one another in the cameras field of view and slowly approached together with the lovely Earth as a backdrop.
Mission controllers carefully monitored all spacecraft systems on both Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 as they sped closer at about 20 cm/sec and stopped at several parking points along the way (400 m, 140 m, 30 m) to confirm everything was nominal.
Chinese engineers and on board systems precisely guided the two spaceships and watched for any deviations. In case of any failures they had the capability to radio the vehicles to separate. But no deviations occurred and the autonomous docking proceeded to completion.
The two vehicles will remain docked for 12 days, then unhook and back off about 150 meters and then conduct another practice docking. The second practice docking is being done to gain more expertise and confidence and will be carried out under different conditions and in daylight.
The combined Shenzhou-8/Tiangong-1 orbiting complex weighs about 16 tons, some 8 tons each. Tiangong-1 is 10.4 m in length and 3.3. m in diameter. Shenzhou 8 is 9.2 m in length.
China plans two crewed flights to Tiangong-1 starting in 2012. The multi-person crews aboard Shenzhou 9 & Shenzhou 10 are almost certain to include China’s first female astronaut. The astronauts would float into Tiangong 1 from their Shenzhou capsules and remain on board for a few days or weeks. They will check out the spacecraft systems and conduct medical, space science and technology tests and experiments.
Meanwhile, since the premature retirement of the space shuttle with no successor in place, the US has absolutely no capability to launch astronauts to earth orbit. Therefore the ISS is totally reliant on Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules. US astronauts must hitch a ride to space with the Russians.
The US Senate just passed a NASA budget for 2012 that cuts NASA funding and will delay a replacement manned vehicle even further, likely into 2017. The US House seeks even deeper NASA budget cuts.
Thus China surges powerfully forward in space and science while the US political establishment has directed NASA to delay and retrench and layoff still more workers.
China today launched the Shenzhou-8 capsule on a historic mission to accomplish the nation’s first ever docking in space with another vehicle, already in orbit, and pave the way toward’s China’s true ambition – constructing a multi-module space station by 2020.
The unpiloted Shenzhou-8 streaked skywards today in a blinding flash atop a powerful and upgraded Long March 2F/Y8 carrier rocket in the early morning darkness and precisely on time at 5:58 a.m. Beijing time (5:58 p.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in northwest China. Viewers could watch a live CCTV broadcast from state media broadcast in English.
The Long March first stage is augmented with four liquid fueled strap on boosters. Spectacular TV views show the boosters and payload fairings being jettisoned.
The goal of the mission is for China to master critical and complex rendezvous and docking technologies and link up with China’s 1st orbiting prototype space station module dubbed Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1.
The historic docking of Shenzhou-8 with Tiangong-1 will be a highly significant achievement and is set to take place after the capsule catches up with the module in two days time. Tiangong-1 has been orbiting Earth since it was launched a month ago from the same launch site.
“The Launch of Shenzhou 8 has been a great success !”, announced Gen. Chang Wanquan, the Commander in Chief of China’s manned space program known as the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) Project. Chang, dressed in his military uniform, is Commanding Officer of Tiangong 1/Shenzhou 8 Rendezvous and Docking Mission Headquarters, and director of the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) General Armaments Department.
“The Shenzhou 8 spaceship has entered at 6:07:53 its operating orbit with a perigee height of 200 km and apogee height of 329 km.”
The unmanned Shenzhou capsule entered orbit 585 seconds after liftoff while flying over the Pacific Ocean and placed the spacecraft into an initial elliptical orbit.
Shenzhou-8 will conduct five orbital maneuvers by firing its on board thrusters to match orbits and close in Tiangong-1 over the next two days and is on course for the linkup. Each vehicle weighs about 8 tons.
The two vehicles will remain docked for 12 days. Shenzhou-8 will then undock and separate and attempt another practice docking.
After several more days of joint operations the Shenzhou-8 capsule will depart and reenter the earth as though it had a crew.
Shenzhou-8 is fully equipped to carry an astronaut crew and even food and water are stored on board.
Today’s success sets the stage for two Chinese manned missions to follow in 2012, namely Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10. They will each carry two or three astronauts.
The Tiangong-1 target module was launched from Jiuquan on September 29 and is functioning perfectly. Its orbit was already lowered and the ship was rotated 180 degrees in anticipation of today’s liftoff.
The Long March 2F booster is the tallest, heaviest and most powerful in China’s rocket arsenal.
China’s state run CCTV carried the launch live and provided excellent and informative commentary that harkened back to the glory days of NASA’s Apollo moon landing project. The Chinese government and people take great pride in the accomplishments of their space program which is vaulting China to the forefront of mastering technologically difficult achievements.
Long range tracking cameras and on board cameras captured exquisite views of Shenzhou-8 maneuver all the way to orbit, including separation of the first stage booster, jettison of the payload fairing, firing of the 2nd stage engines, deployment of the twin solar arrays, live shots inside the capsule and beautiful views of mother Earth some 200 kilometers below.