China Tiangong spaceship in space
This CGI of the Tiangong 3 space station shows three Tiangong space station modules, a Shenzhou manned module underneath and a Tianzhou automated resupply vehicle all docked together. The new Chinese spaceship would likely replace the Shenzhou in the 2020-2025 timeframe.

China’s space quest is leading it in new and interesting directions: scientists have built a charged couple device (CCD) imaging optical sensor for docking space stations. Chinese Academy of Science and Technology (CAST) scientists call this optical sensor a “super eye”, stating that it can help dock spaceships moving at “eight times the speed of a bullet” (Mach 28). CCD imaging optical sensors function by converting the impact of photons on the sensor into electron movements, forming the basis for technologies from smartphone cameras to modern spy satellites.

Chang'e 5 super eye China space

Change’e 5

Images demonstrating the sample return module from the Change’e 5 lunar mission. It will be able to use the ‘super eye’ technology to guide it from lunar launch and terrestrial reentry.

The “super eye” has twice the range and resolution of its predecessor (mounted on the Tiangong 1 space station), thus doubling the amount of time the autonomous docking system has to work with when docking space ships together. Gong Dezhu, one of the CAST designers, remarked that the “super eye” has only half the weight and power consumption of its international counterparts.

China Tiangong Space Station


The super eye technology will improve safety and reliability for future dockings between Tiangong space stations and Shenzhou space ships, the Tiangong 1 docking used older technology (the CGI illustrates the datalink for the older automated system).

For the immediate future, CAST plans to install the “super eye” on the Tiangong 2 space station (set to launch in 2016) and the 2017 Change’e lunar sample return mission. In addition, CAST hopes that the “super eye” would be found on space station robotic manipulator arms, satellite refueling and repair, aerial refueling and underwater vehicles.

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