China’s Tiangong-1 Launch: Its Significance & What To Expect Next

On Thursday night, China took a giant leap in its manned space program with the successful Tiangong-1 launch onboard the Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

AsianScientist (Oct. 2, 2011) – On Thursday night, China took a giant leap in its manned space program with the successful launch of Tiangong-1 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) in Northwest China.

The flawless unmanned flight onboard the highly-proven Long March 2F rocket marks the first step by China to establish a manned space station that will be occupied by three persons around 2020.

Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, is China’s first spacecraft designed for orbital docking tests and space research. It consists of two major segments – the experiment module and resource module. The experiment module is the primary work and living area for future spacemen.

This is a test mission and it is expected to remain in orbit for two years. If successful, China will begin work towards building the actual manned space station.

Timing of the Chinese space station

The Chinese space station is expected to become operational just at a time when there are plans to decommission the 17-nation International Space Station (ISS).

China has all along declined US invitation to participate in the ISS program, amidst suspicions that the US invitation was merely to scuttle the Tiangong-1 project.

The Chinese mission comes at a time when the first man to step on the moon, Neil Armstrong, has been criticizing the US space program and expressing concern that its human space flight project was slipping. He has expressed apprehension that American leadership in this area could be snatched by other nations, especially China.

Incidentally, for reasons unknown, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) played America’s unofficial national anthem, “America The Beautiful,” while covering the launch of Tiangong-1 on Thursday.

Whether CCTV did this merely to tease the Americans or was it a mistake is being debated by many.

On Thursday, a few minutes after the Long March 2F rocket thundered off the launch pad, the launch commentator announced that mobile tracking stations had picked up the vehicle’s signals.

Thereafter, the first stage separated, and 150 seconds later there was the separation of the boosters. From the mission control room, scientists could see the progress of the historic flight from onboard cameras which captured every move of the rocket.

As the rocket rose higher initially in the easterly direction, various ground stations started tracking its movement.

About 200 seconds into the mission, the rocket flew out of the atmosphere and entered outer space. This crucial event occurred 10 minutes after lift-off amidst thunderous applause in the mission control room. The mission was a success.

Space mission was risky, says chief architect

The solar-powered Tiangong-1, weighing 8.5 tons and having a length of 10.4 meters and a diameter of 3.35 meters, is revolutionary in a number of ways, but not without some inherent risks.

The chief designer of China’s manned space program, Zhou Jianping, explained in a pre-launch interview with Xinhua News that the docking technology was the most risky aspect of China’s manned space program.

“We can never count on other countries to sell their mature technology to us. So we have to rely on our own,” Zhou said.

He explained that the US and Russia had developed the know-how for docking technology, but it was only for a single docking during each mission.

On the other hand, Tiangong-1 will dock with three spacecraft – Shenzhou-8, 9, and 10, which will cut costs. The most advanced microwave radar and laser radar systems have been deployed for the mission, he said.

According to Zhou, challenges include maintaining a distance of several centimeters between the two spacecraft before they touch each other, and burning a minimal amount of fuel to complete the docking.

“The most nerve-wracking moment will be during the actual docking when a series of operations should be finished quickly and accurately or the spacecraft operating at 7.7 kilometers an hour will end in disaster,” he said.

Next on the calendar

Once Tiangong-1 reaches earth orbit at an altitude of about 200 km, Shenzhou-8 will be launched tentatively in the first week of November and will head towards its target.

When it reaches Tiangong-1, the entire docking exercise will take 48 hours. Once docked, Shenzhou-8 will remain there for 12 days before returning to earth.

After this, Shenzhou-9 and 10 will be launched for more docking tests in the course of the next two years. While Shenzhou-9 will be unmanned, Shenzhou-10 will be flown by a woman taikonaut (the Chinese word for astronaut or cosmonaut) who will test a manned space rendezvous and docking with Tiangong-1.

All these exercises will culminate in China constructing its own manned space station by 2020.

China is the third nation to launch a manned space flight after the U.S. and Russia. Its first manned space mission, Shenzhou-5, was a 21-hour flight commanded by Yang Liwei in 2003.

The Tiangong-1 mission is being watched with interest in India because once the Chinese space station becomes operational around 2020, there is every possibility that a Pakistani scientist will perhaps become one of its earliest occupants.

If that happens, it could be a wake-up call for the Indian manned space flight program, which has yet to take off.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Srinivas is a journalist with a passion for space exploration.

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