China's Shenzhou space capsule docks at the Tiangong 1 space station in 2013

Space docking made safer with China's 'eyesight' guidance

Chinese engineers have reportedly developed new technology to make docking between vehicles in space safer and more efficient.

The technology, described by China’s Xinhua state news agency as an ‘eye’ guidance system is likely to be used on China’s next space station, the Tiangong 2, as well as on the Chang'e 5 lunar probe and the planned permanent space station.

"Good 'eyesight' is crucial for one spacecraft chasing another for hundreds of thousands of kilometres to achieve a perfect rendezvous and docking - it's like threading the needle," Gong Dezhu, spacecraft designer at the China Academy of Space Technology told Xinhua.

China plans to launch the Tiangong 2 next year and send the Chang'e 5 to collect samples from the Moon and return to Earth around 2017. A permanently manned space station is planned for about 2022.

The country’s ambitious space programme is a top priority for China’s President President Xi Jinping, who plans to turn China into a major space power on a par with the US and Russia.

However, the country still has a long way to go and multiple technology hurdles to overcome. Currently, China doesn’t have the capability to launch cargo and fuel via space freighters and its technology for recycling water and air is not fit for extended manned missions.

Although China says its space technology is only being developed to serve peaceful purposes, the US fears the country may use its assets to block space-based technology of its adversaries during a potential crisis.

In recent years, China’s space programme celebrated several major successes. In June 2013, three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days in orbit aboard an experimental space laboratory, the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1. Only six months later, the unmanned Yutu rover successfully touched down on the surface of the Moon. The occasion marked the first soft-landing on the Moon since 1976 and Yutu became the first unmanned rover on the Moon since Russia's Lunokhod 2 ceased operations in 1973.

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