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Docking, extended space missions up next for China

Posted: May 12, 2011

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As U.S. lawmakers seek to restrict bilateral collaboration between NASA and China, the up-and-coming space power is finishing up testing on two large unmanned spacecraft scheduled to blast off later this year for the country's first in-orbit docking demonstration.

Artist's concept of China's space station scheduled to be in orbit by 2020. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
The docking experiment is a key step in China's aggressive plan to field a massive space station the size of NASA's Skylab research platform by 2020.

China released fresh details on the space station program in April, calling for public suggestions on names for the complex, its three modules and a cargo resupply spaceship.

The space station would weigh more than 130,000 pounds. Its core module would stretch nearly 60 feet long, then two experiment modules would blast off and join together to form the complex in orbit, officials from the China Manned Space Engineering Office said at a news conference in April.

The engineering office, called CMSEO, supports planning and development of China's human space efforts.

Manned Shenzhou spaceships and robotic cargo craft would regularly launch from Earth to dock with the station, according to a report in China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

A crew of three Chinese astronauts would live and work inside the station, which would include habitable rooms up to 13.8 feet in diameter.

Before China's space program is able to build and operate such a space station, engineers must tackle several key challenges in the coming years to extend the country's presence in orbit.

China will begin the second phase of its piloted space program later this year with the launch of Tiangong 1, a 19,000-pound experimental spacecraft designed for two years of docking trials and other investigations a few hundred miles above Earth.

Tiangong means "heavenly palace" in Mandarin Chinese.

With a service module and a pressurized cabin, Tiangong 1 will launch on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan space base in China's Gobi desert in the second half of 2011.

Photo of the Tiangong 1 module undergoing testing in early 2011. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
The module has completed peformance checks, flight simulations and part of its environmental testing to ensure it will work as designed in space, according to the CMSEO website.

The Long March launcher for Tiangong 1 has also finished the first phase of preflight testing.

Tiangong 1 features a docking port on the forward end of the spacecraft. Navigation sensors and communications instruments are also bolted on the front of the module to support rendezvous and docking operations, according to CMSEO.

The unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft will launch on another Long March 2F booster two months later to chase down the Tiangong 1 module and connect with it in orbit, forming a miniature laboratory for China's military-run space program.

Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut in space and deputy director of CMSEO, said April 29 that he is satisfied with preparations for launch of Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 8.

Two crewed Shenzhou capsules are being built for launch in 2012. Both ships will spend days to weeks at the Tiangong mini-space station, which is designed to work for two years.

China is training a team of 21 astronauts, including two females, for docking procedures, Xinhua reported.

China's next five-year strategic plan includes manned space missions spanning at least 20 days and the design and construction of an automated cargo craft to resupply outposts in orbit, according to a Xinhua report quoting Wang Zhaoyao, a spokesperson for the human space program.

Photo of the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft undergoing thermal vacuum testing in early 2011. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
The promise of heightened Chinese space activity comes as the U.S. government struggles to formulate a policy to address China's rising ambitions.

The question: Should the United States partner with China's space program or view its development as a threat?

Congress inserted language in NASA's budget attempting to limit the agency's ability to enter into cooperative agreements with China. Lawmakers said NASA should not use funding to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract" to collaborate with China or any Chinese-owned company.

President Barack Obama signed the budget into law last month, but John Holdren, the White House science advisor, told lawmakers in a May 4 hearing the administration would review potential scientific cooperation initiatives on a case-by-case basis. Holdren said it is the Obama administration's view the legislative provision should not interfere with the president's constitutional ability to conduct international negotiations.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., is a staunch critic of China's human rights record.

As chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA, Wolf was instrumental in ensuring the China restrictions made it into the federal budget.

Wolf and other Republican lawmakers criticized NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden's visit to China in October 2010. NASA says the joint talks did not address specific ideas for cooperation, but Bolden said the visit increased mutual understanding and formed the basis for further potential dialogue.

Artist's concept of the Tiangong 1 module and Shenzhou 8 docking in orbit. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
Other Republican and Democrat representatives expressed guarded support for Bolden's visit, calling for a joint common docking system that could facilitate the rescue of stranded U.S., Russian and Chinese space crews.

"Most countries expanding their space programs are strong U.S. allies that are primarily interested in advancing science research or building a commercial space industry," Wolf said Wednesday in remarks before a commission reviewing U.S. economic and security relationships with China.

"The Chinese, however, do not fall into this category," Wolf said. "Over the last decade, China has developed its space program at a surprising pace. In less than 10 years, the Chinese have gone from launching their first manned spacecraft to unveiling plans last week for an advanced Chinese space station designed to rival the International Space Station."

Although China's space station announcement outlined a much smaller outpost than the International Space Station, the country also has plans for a heavy-lift rocket more powerful than any vehicle in the expected U.S. inventory over the next half-decade. Such a rocket appears tailored for heavy-duty construction missions or manned flights to the moon and beyond.