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Shenzhou spaceship begins historic orbital pursuit

Posted: October 31, 2011

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An unmanned Shenzhou space capsule blasted off from China on Monday to begin a two-day chase of another spacecraft in orbit for a high-speed link-up to form an austere space laboratory for future astronaut visits.

The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft launched at 2158 GMT (5:58 p.m. EDT). Credit: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology
The launching commenced an orbital ballet to pursue the Tiangong 1 module, an 11-foot-wide, 34-foot-long target vehicle that's been circling Earth since Sept. 29.

Sometime Wednesday, the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft will automatically approach the target module, establish two-way radio and navigation links, then approach Tiangong 1 at a pace of 20 centimeters per second, or less than one-half mile per hour.

So far, only Russia, the United States and the European Space Agency have launched spacecraft with the ability to rendezvous and dock in orbit. Japan has demonstrated rendezvous and docking technology with its resupply freighter for the International Space Station and a satellite mission in the 1990s.

If successful, China's autopilot docking will set the stage for one or two manned Shenzhou flights next year to visit the Tiangong module and form a temporary mini-space station for technology testing and science experiments.

The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft launched at 2158 GMT (5:58 p.m. EDT) Monday from the Jiuquan space base, a restricted military-run facility in northwestern China's Inner Mongolia province.

Featuring booster, control system and failure detection system upgrades, the 191-foot-tall Long March 2F rocket ignited with a burst of bright flame and rose from the launch pad right on time, at the exact moment necessary to reach the Tiangong module already in orbit.

Spectacular live views broadcast from cameras mounted on-board the rocket showed the Long March's four strap-on boosters falling away and the fiery glow from the vehicle's engines. China state-run television aired the launch live.

Less than 10 minutes after blasting off, the 17,817-pound Shenzhou 8 craft was released from the rocket. A few minutes later, control teams erupted in applause as they watched live footage of Shenzhou 8's solar panels deploying, a crucial moment in the mission to produce electricity.

Chinese Gen. Chang Wanquan, commander of China's manned space program, confirmed the launch was successful in a statement before engineering teams and dignitaries gathered in Beijing.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office reported the Shenzhou 8 capsule was placed in an orbit with an altitude between 124 miles and 204 miles.

Shenzhou 8 was supposed to activate a communications antenna and begin transmitting data through a relay satellite later Monday. An engine firing was also planned to circularize its orbit.

Artist's concept of the Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 spacecraft docking in orbit. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
Four or five rocket burns are scheduled over the next two days to bring Shenzhou 8 near Tiangong 1's position. The maneuvers will raise Shenzhou 8's orbit to an altitude of more than 200 miles before it docks with Tiangong 1.

"According to our current plan, there will be about four adjustments to the spacecraft's orbit in order to lead Shenzhou 8 to the target," said Zhang Bonan, chief designer of China's spaceflight program at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., according to reports in the state-run Xinhua news agency. "When the distance between the two vehicles is less than 50 kilometers, sensors and communication equipments attached to the craft will be able to capture the target."

Tiangong means heavenly palace in English, while Shenzhou is translated as divine craft.

Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 will form a combined spacecraft stretching approximately 60 feet long. The vehicles will stay docked for 12 days, then Shenzhou 8 will back away and redock for another two days.

Chinese officials say the Shenzhou capsule will depart Tiangong 1 and its re-entry module will parachute back to Earth about 17 days after launch, or some time around Nov. 18.

Assuming this month's crucial docking tests go well, up to three astronauts could climb aboard the Shenzhou 9 spaceship and blast off early next year. They would dock with Tiangong 1 and conduct experiments inside.

The docking demo will be a crucial accomplishment for China's future space aspirations. The construction and servicing of space stations will require modules to autonomously meet and link up in orbit.

China is developing more powerful rockets to haul larger modules into space, eyeing the assembly of a large space station the size of NASA's Skylab complex of the 1970s. China expects to have the 100-ton space station in orbit by 2020.