A Chinese spacecraft carried out a manned docking with an experimental space module yesterday, the latest milestone in China’s ambitious effort to build a space station.
The Shenzhou 9 and its three-person crew, which includes China’s first woman in space, linked with the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module just after 6am GMT. State television carried images live.
The crew is expected to enter the module in a few hours, Xinhua news agency said, the first time China has been able to transfer taikonauts between two orbiting craft. During the 13-day mission, the taikonauts will work and sleep aboard Tiangong 1, a trial module that includes an exercise bike and a video telephone booth, according to media.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house taikonauts for long periods of time.
China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the US and Russia. The Tiangong 1 is a trial module, not the building block of a space station. However, the docking mission is the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back US manned space launches.
The US will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017 and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.
However, NASA has begun investing in US firms to provide commercial spaceflight services and is spending about US$3 billion a year on a new rocket and capsule to send taikonauts to the moon, asteroids and eventually to Mars.