Shenzhou to dock with space lab
17 June 2012
Last updated at 19:13 ET
An artist’s impression of the Shenzhou-9 vehicle docking with the Tiangong-1 space lab
China’s Shenzhou-9 capsule, with its crew of three, remains on course to dock with the Tiangong-1 space lab.
National media reports said the coupling of the two vehicles was expected at 15:00 Beijing time (07:00 GMT; 08:00 BST).
The latest Shenzhou mission was launched on Saturday, taking China’s first female astronaut into orbit.
Thirty-three-year old Liu Yang flies with Commander Jing Haipeng, 46, and fellow flight engineer, Liu Wang, 42.
It is China’s fourth manned mission and another opportunity to see how far the Asian nation has developed its space technology.
It follows on from last year’s unmanned Shenzhou-8 outing which completed successful rendezvous and docking manoeuvres at Tiangong.
That gave Beijing authorities the confidence to put astronauts on the current flight.
Since Saturday’s lift-off from the Jiuquan spaceport, Shenzhou-9 has been working through a series of engine burns to take it higher and closer to the orbiting space lab.
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Astronaut Liu Yang
- Born in Henan province and an only child
- Married, with no children
- Air force pilot with rank of major
- Member of Communist Party
- Honoured as a “model” pilot in March 2010
- Landed plane after being struck by birds
- “Little flying knight” on QQ instant messenger
- Likes cooking; a penchant for patriotic speeches
Monday’s docking will again be an automated procedure; computers – not the crew – will be in charge of events.
A suite of radar, laser and optical sensors will align Shenzhou with Tiangong. The capsule’s thrusters will then drive it into the space lab’s docking ring.
The union will occur at an altitude of about 340km (210 miles).
It is understood that only two members of the crew will enter the lab at any one time. The third individual will stay in the Shenzhou craft in case of emergency.
During the flight, a range of scientific experiments are planned, including a number of medical tests geared towards understanding the effects of weightlessness on the human body.
At some point in the next few days, the astronauts will attempt a manual docking.
This would see the crew uncouple their vehicle from the lab, retreat to a defined distance and then command their ship to re-attach itself.
Liu Wang will take the lead in this activity. “We’ve done over 1,500 simulations,” he said during the pre-launch press conference.
“We’ve mastered the techniques and skills. China has first class technologies and astronauts, and therefore I’m confident we will fulfil the manual rendezvous.”
Tiangong-1, which means ”heavenly palace”, was launched in September last year
China is already talking about a Shenzhou-10 mission to Tiangong sometime in the next year.
The lab is a prototype for the type of modules the nation hopes to join in orbit later this decade to form a permanently manned space station.
At about 60 tonnes in mass, this proposed station would be considerably smaller than the 400-tonne international platform operated by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, but its mere presence in the sky would nonetheless represent a remarkable achievement.
Concept drawings describe a core module weighing some 20-22 tonnes, flanked by two slightly smaller laboratory vessels.
Officials say it would be supplied by freighters in exactly the same way that robotic cargo ships keep the International Space Station (ISS) today stocked with fuel, food, water, air, and spare parts.
The Shenzhou-9 crew are expected back on Earth before the end of the month.
Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter