China successfully carried out its first docking exercise yesterday between two unmanned spacecraft, a key test of the rising power’s plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space.
The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft joined the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module about 340km above Earth, in a maneuver carried live on state television in the early hours of the morning.
The 10.5m-long unmanned Tiangong, launched on Sept. 29, is part of China’s preparations for a space laboratory at some point in the future.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and other senior leaders oversaw the operation from a command center in Beijing, a measure of the importance the government attaches to the mission and to China’s space ambitions in general.
“We believe that making this breakthrough and mastering the space docking technology is a meaningful and historic breakthrough for our country, and a huge technical leap forward,” Wu Ping (武平), spokeswoman for China’s Manned Space Engineering Program, told a press conference.
Wu said all of the components in the docking mechanism, as well as 600 onboard instruments, were designed and manufactured by Chinese firms.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important aspect of China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.
The next stage would be two similar docking exercises next year, with at least one expected to carry astronauts. China aims to have a fully fledged space station by about 2020.
“The planned Chinese space station will be open to global scientists,” Xinhua news agency said. “[A] foreign presence might also be welcomed aboard Chinese spacecraft in the future.”
The docking mission is the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space, alongside its growing military and diplomatic presence.
China launched its first manned space mission in 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei (楊利偉) orbited Earth 14 times. It launched its second moon orbiter last year after becoming only the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their craft in 2008.
Beijing also plans an unmanned moon landing and the deployment of a moon rover next year. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.