China has successfully docked an unmanned spacecraft with an orbiting space lab module.
The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft was launched on 1 November carrying a payload of experiments in biology and medicine. It docked with the Tiangong-1 module on 3 November and the pair continued to orbit together before separating. As E&T went to press a second docking attempt was due, after which the spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth, making a parachute landing. Tiangong-1 has been in orbit since 29 September.
Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China’s manned space programme, said the present mission is part of a three-phase development strategy. There will be two more docking missions in 2012, with at least one of those flights carrying crew, to be followed in the second phase by construction of the unmanned laboratory in 2016 and then a manned station four years later.
Acquisition of reliable docking technology is an essential prerequisite for building a space station and has only previously been achieved by the US and Russia. “It is quite risky to join together two vehicles travelling at high speeds in orbit, with a margin of error of no more than 20cm,” said Wu. The precision docking system, comprising up to 10,000 parts, and all the spacecraft equipment on Shenzhou-8, were developed and made by China.