The journey toward a Chinese space station has taken a huge step forward. Yesterday China’s Shenzou 8 spacecraft, which launched earlier this week, successfully docked with the country’s Tiangong-1 space module, which was placed in orbit by an earlier launch. The successful docking maneuver demonstrated a leap forward for China’s manned space program, and the first in a series of missions designed to test technologies that China hopes to cultivate into a manned space station by decade’s end.
Both spacecraft were unmanned for the mission. The Shenzou craft was the active participant in the docking, firing its thrusters to nudge its way closer to the (relatively) stationary Tiangong-1. Guided by optical and radar sensors, the two glided to a secure lock between their docking rings, at which time twelve hooks locked the two spacecraft together. A dozen pins then made electrical connections between the two. The maneuver took place at roughly 211 miles altitude directly above China and required just ten minutes to complete.
The docked pair will orbit for 12 days before separating and then docking a second time. They will then orbit for two more days before Shenzou 8 heads back to Earth with its science payload about two weeks from now.
Two more missions, Shenzou 9 and Shenzou 10, are planned for next year. Both are expected to dock with Tiangong-1 and, if Shenzou 8 proves successful over the next two weeks, those missions will likely be manned (it’s rumored that one of them could include China’s first female astronaut).
Big picture, this docking is similar to the strides made by the American space program during Gemini in the middle 1960s. But the pace of China’s sprint toward becoming a space power is frenetic. China is only the third country to put a manned space travel program into action–its first manned flight was in 2003–and the rate at which they are ticking off milestones is impressive. It’s also somewhat troubling to Washington, where some are worried about China’s military ambitions in space (note the PLA officers seated in mission control in the video below, and the fact that a military officer addressed the room after the successful docking).
China hopes to have its very own 66-ton space station in orbit–or at least underway–by 2020. That’s about the same time the International Space Station is scheduled to be decommissioned (unless its lease is extended again). Draw from that whatever you will.