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Chinese rocket successfully launches mini-space lab

Posted: September 29, 2011

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China launched a miniature space module into orbit Thursday, where it will join another craft for the country's first space docking in November and create a destination for up to two manned flights next year.

The Tiangong 1 module lifted off at 9:16 p.m. Beijing time. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
The 19,000-pound Tiangong 1 module lifted off at 1316 GMT (9:16 a.m. EDT) aboard a Long March 2F rocket. Chinese engineers modified the 170-foot-tall rocket for the launch of Tiangong 1, which is heavier and larger than China's manned Shenzhou capsules that previously flew on the rocket seven times.

The upgraded rocket, called the Long March 2F T1, flew with a larger nose shroud and longer liquid-fueled boosters than previous missions.

The two-stage launcher launched at 9:16 p.m. Beijing time from the Jiuquan space base in province of Inner Mongolia in northwest China. On-board rocket cameras showed the hydrazine-fueled launcher soaring into the night sky, shedding its four strap-on boosters and first stage to drop back into the darkness along the way.

Like other recent manned space launches, the flight was broadcast on state-run Chinese television.

Chinese media reported the Tiangong module deployed from the Long March rocket's second stage approximately 10 minutes after liftoff. Tiangong 1 unfurled its solar panels a few minutes later.

Chinese Gen. Chang Wanquan, commander of China's manned space program, declared the launch a success from a control center in Beijing, drawing applause from assembled Chinese politicians and dignitaries.

Chinese president Hu Jintao was in the Beijing control center and congratulated the team on the successful launch. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao witnessed the launch from Jiuquan.

Chinese officials said the Tiangong 1 spacecraft entered an orbit stretching from an altitude of 120 miles to 215 miles. Its orbital inclination is 42.75 degrees.

The module will soon raise its orbit to an average altitude of approximately 220 miles, then it will be readied to receive an unmanned Shenzhou spaceship at its forward docking port some time in November.

Tiangong 1 measures 34.1 feet long and has a maximum diameter of 11 feet, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office. That's almost the size of a school bus.

The spacecraft features two modules: a resource module with fuel tanks and solar panels for power; and an experiment module with an effective volume of 530 cubic feet. China says that's enough volume for three astronauts to live and work.

Artist's concept of the Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou spacecraft docking in orbit. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
According to Chinese media, the experimentation and living section includes sleeping and exercise facilities.

Tiangong means heavenly palace in English.

The Long March 2F booster and Shenzhou capsule for the Chinese program's next launch are already at the Jiuquan base for liftoff in November, possibly as early as Nov. 1.

The Shenzhou 8 capsule would rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong module two days after launch, forming a mini-space station stretching approximately 60 feet long. After an initial stay of 12 days, Shenzhou 8 will back away and re-dock to the Tiangong module before returning to Earth.

The Shenzhou 9 and 10 missions will visit Tiangong 1 next year, and both could carry Chinese astronauts if the first docking test goes well, according to the country's space leadership. Tiangong 1 is designed to operate for two years in space.

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.