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China is days away from launching three astronauts

Posted: June 10, 2012

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China rolled a Long March booster to a desert launch pad Saturday, setting up for the launch of three astronauts as soon as this week on a mission to dock with an orbiting laboratory module 200 miles above Earth.

Rollout of the Long March 2F rocket occurred Saturday. Credit: Chinese Ministry of Defense
Chinese space officials said only the launch would occur in mid-June, but the state-run CCTV television news channel reported Sunday the blastoff was scheduled for June 16.

The flight would mark China's fourth human spaceflight and the first crewed mission to the country's Tiangong 1 spacecraft, a bus-sized module launched in September 2011.

China's earlier piloted orbital flights accomplished the program's first spacewalk in 2008, and two astronauts spent nearly five days in space on a 2005 mission. Yang Liwei became the first Chinese citizen to reach space in 2003.

Tiangong 1 was the destination for the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft in November, which successfully accomplished two automated link-ups with the module in orbit. The dockings were the first in China's space program, according to official media outlets.

The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, mounted atop a 191-foot-tall Long March 2F rocket, rolled to a launch complex at the Jiuquan space base Saturday. Several days of final testing are planned before the mission is approved for launch, officials said.

The one-mile rollout from the Long March assembly building to the launch pad began at about 10:30 a.m. local time (0230 GMT) Saturday, according to a statement issued by the China Manned Space Engineering Office, or CMSEO, a military division which oversees Chinese human space missions.

The rollout "indicates that the manned space rendezvous and docking mission between [the] Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 9 spacecraft has entered the last preparation phase," the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a statement posted on its website.

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

Artist's concept of the Tiangong 1 (left) and Shenzhou 9 (right) spacecraft in orbit. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
Chinese space officials previously said the Shenzhou 9 flight would include three astronauts, including the country's first female space flier. The identities of the crew have not been announced.

The CMSEO said in a statement the Shenzhou 9 crew has completed manual rendezvous and docking simulation training and the astronauts are in "good condition" for the mission.

Mission controllers remotely commanded the Tiangong 1 module to lower its orbit in early June, placing the spacecraft in position for docking with Shenzhou 9.

Chinese officials last year said that while the unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission would test automated dockings in orbit, the Shenzhou 9 crew would demonstrate a delicate manual link-up with a pilot at the controls.

Shenzhou 8 took about two days to reach Tiangong 1 following launch. China has not said whether Shenzhou 9 will follow a similar rendezvous profile.

The mission's duration has also been kept secret. The capsule will make a parachuted landing in China's Inner Mongolia province at the end of the mission.

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported one astronaut would remain inside the Shenzhou 9 capsule as a precautionary measure in the event of an emergency. Two crew members will enter Tiangong 1 for a slew of unspecified engineering and scientific investigations.

Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 will form a combined spacecraft stretching approximately 60 feet long.