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First space dockings: US Gemini 8, March 16, 1966; Russia Cosmos 186, Oct. 30, 1967; China Shenzhou 8, Nov. 4, 2011

By WcP.Scientific.Mind - Posted on 07 November 2011

the Long March rocket carrying the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou 8 blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre

China first orbital docking: Tiangong-1 spacecraft and Chinese Space Station

The Agena Target Vehicle as seen from the Gemini 8 spacecraft during rendezvous. This was the first time two spacecraft successfully docked, which was a critical milestone if a mission to the Moon was to become a reality.


China has joined two space vehicles together in orbit for the first time. The unmanned Shenzhou 8 craft made contact with the Tiangong-1 space lab at 1729 GMT.

[2 November 2011] The unmanned Shenzhou 8 craft, launched earlier this week, made contact with the Tiangong-1 space lab at 1729 GMT. The union occurred over China itself.

Being able to dock two space vehicles together is a necessary capability for China if it wants to start building a space station towards the decade's end.

Although no astronauts were in the Shenzhou craft this time, future missions will carry people.

Tuesday's procedure (Beijing time 0029, Thursday) took place at an altitude of about 340km. It was automated but overseen on the ground at the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Centre.

The vehicles used radar and optical sensors to compute their proximity to each other and guide their final approach and contact. A video feed from orbit showed the final moments of the vehicles coming together.

Shenzhou 8 was the active craft in the docking. It fired its thrusters to push its front end towards the docking port of Tiangong-1. Once the vehicles' docking rings had made a good capture, 12 hooks were deployed to fix the craft in place. Protruding pins made electrical connections.

From first contact to confirmation of a seal took about 10 minutes.

Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong-1 will spend two weeks circling the globe together before Shenzhou 8 heads back to Earth.

"After a joint flight of about 12 days, they will separate," explained Prof Yang Yuguang from the China Aerospace, Science and Industry Corporation.

"Then the Shenzhou 8 will draw back to about 140m. After that they will perform a second docking. Then they will have a flight of two days. Then they will be separated to about 5km; this will be a safe distance for both vehicles. Then the re-entry procedure will be performed by the Shenzhou 8 spaceship," he told state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

The return capsule will land by parachute to allow experiments carried into orbit to be recovered for analysis. The German space agency (DLR) has supplied an experimental box containing fish, plants, worms, bacteria and even human cancer cells for a series of biological studies.

"This is a great moment for Chinese space activities," observed DLR chairman Prof Jan Woerner. "This co-operation between China and Germany is called the Simbox; and it's a box in which we have small apparatus to investigate the cells of plants and animals, to see their behaviour under zero gravity conditions.

"It's a really sophisticated experiment and I hope that the results will help also on Earth to learn more about the behaviour of cells in cancer and the immune system."

* Tiangong-1 was launched in September on a Long March 2F rocket
* The unmanned laboratory unit was first put in a 350km-high orbit
* Shenzhou 8 was sent up to rendezvous and dock with Tiangong-1
* The project is testing key technologies such as life-support systems
* China aims to start building a 60-tonne space station by about 2020

Assuming the current flight of Shenzhou 8 goes according to plan, two manned missions (Shenzhou 9 and 10) are likely to try to make similar dockings in 2012.

Chinese astronauts - yuhangyuans - are expected to live aboard the conjoined vehicles for up to two weeks. There is speculation in the Chinese media that one of these missions could also include the country's first female yuhangyuan.

Beijing sees the Tiangong and Shenzhou dockings as the next phase in its step-by-step approach to acquiring the skills of human spaceflight operations.

It is a learning curve China hopes will eventually lead to the construction of a space station. This could start taking shape before 2020.

At about 60 tonnes in mass, this future 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.

China is investing billions of dollars in its space programme. It has a strong space science effort under way, with two orbiting satellites having already been launched to the Moon and a third mission expected to put a rover on the lunar surface.

Next week should see its first Mars orbiter - Yinghuo-1 - begin its journey to the Red Planet.

China's space program has its first successful in-orbit docking

China has been charging ahead at full speed with their plans to build a space station by 2020, and on Wednesday they reached another milestone with a successful docking between the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 module.

The unmanned craft will remain docked for about 12 days, before separating and docking all over again just to be sure there are no bugs in the system. If all goes well, Shenzou 9 and 10 scheduled for later this year are expected to be manned, possibly including China's first female Astronaut.

While China's space program is moving ahead at a blinding pace, it's important to remember that they have a few advantages. By learning from mistakes made by the U.S. and Soviet programs they can avoid a lot of potential pitfalls, and they also benefit from the massive advances in technology over the last 40 years. These days an iPhone has more computing power than the Apollo 8 module could muster in 1969.

When China managed dock two unmanned spacecraft orbiting earth for the first time, it took a great leap forward in its new race into space

Floating 200 miles above earth... the Tiangong 1 module docked successfully with the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft in the early hours of Thursday morning, China took a giant step towards its dream of becoming the pre-eminent power in space, a position some experts believe it may claim by 2040.

At a time when the US is mired in an economic downturn and both public and financial support for the space agency Nasa is at its lowest ebb ever, China is forging ahead with plans to have its own space station by the end of the decade. And with the Russians also stating that manned space missions are no longer a priority, it is likely that - within 15 years or so - the next men to set foot on the moon will be Chinese.

Nor is China looking merely at near space. Later this month, it will launch its first Mars probe, carried into space as part of the payload on a Russian rocket.

Just eight years since China put its first astronauts into space, and only three years after 0its astronauts took their first space walk, the latest accomplishment reveals with startling clarity the speed at which China is mastering the steps needed to become a superpower in space.

"It's a huge technical leap forward," said Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme. Over the next 10 years, China plans to launch around 20 spacecraft to build its own space station. "We will do more two more rendezvous and docking flights next year. After that, we will begin the construction of a space laboratory and space station."

The space lab is expected to be operational by 2016 and the space station by 2020, the very year that the International Space Station (ISS) is set to be decommissioned.

China did not even launch its first satellite until 1970, one year after Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon. Now, it rivals Russia in launching commercial satellites, sending 20 into orbit last year alone. Jiuquan, China's space city, in northwestern Gansu Province is the Chinese equivalent of Mission Control in Houston and the Cape Canaveral shuttle launch-pad rolled int one.

The launches themselves take place nearby on the edge of the Gobi Desert, part of a huge enterprise whose details - unlike Nasa's operation - are kept strictly secret.

But it is the successful docking of the 33ft Tiangong 1, or "Heavenly Palace" 1, with the 30ft Shenzhou 8 that is set to prompt a massive acceleration in the country's space programme. It means China now has the ability to ferry its taikonauts, the Chinese name for their astronauts, and supplies back and forth from earth to a space station of its own.

China is also preparing to launch the latest generation of its Long March rockets, which will be able to carry far heavier payloads into space.

Professor Jiao says that Western suspicions of China's ambitions in space are unfounded. "It is costly and silly to use the space programme for military purposes. Why would we make such a big show and spend so much money if it was only for military use? Our goal is very simple; we want to make scientific discoveries in space. I am sure all mankind will benefit from Chinese achievements in space," he said.

What is clear that China seems able to meet its goals in space far more cheaply than Nasa. Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is estimated Beijing spends around £1.5 billion a year on its space programme, a fraction of Nasa's annual budget of £20 billion. "I would suspect they are spending more than they admit. That's certainly true with their defence spending. But they are definitely getting value for money," said Professor Sheehan. "The Russians always spent less on their space programme than Nasa and they did OK, even though it wasn't as technologically advanced as Nasa's."

For now, Nasa remains the world leader in space technology. But there seems to be little appetite amongst both the US's leaders and the American public for the bold missions which characterised Nasa's operations in its glory days of the 1960's and 70's. "The question is whether the United States will proceed with its own long-term programme of space exploration and development, or drift," said Mr Pace.

That lack of enthusiasm is perhaps the reason why China's growing presence above the earth has so far not sparked a space race reminiscent of the battle between the US and the former Soviet Union for supremacy. "I believe the United States is largely indifferent at this point," said Mr Pace.

More likely is the prospect of a regional space race in Asia. India is pushing ahead with plans for its first manned mission in 2016, while Japan has stepped up its programme of probes to asteroids and the moon.

Some 12 million people recorded their hopes and dreams for the future and just under 43,000 of them were selected to be stored on a computer chip and carried into space as part of the mission.

Gemini 8 (officially Gemini VIII) was the sixth manned spaceflight in NASA's Gemini program. The mission conducted the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit.
The first docking of two spacecraft was achieved on March 16, 1966, when Gemini 8, under the command of Neil Armstrong, rendezvoused and docked with an unmanned Agena Target Vehicle. This had been originally planned for Gemini 6, but had to be cancelled when the Agena vehicle was destroyed during liftoff. The docking mission was then replaced with the Gemini 7/6A rendezvous mission.

The Soviets carried out the first automated, unmanned docking between Cosmos 186 and Cosmos 188 on October 30, 1967.

The first Soviet cosmonaut to attempt a manual docking was Georgi Beregovoi who unsuccessfully tried to dock his Soyuz 3 craft with the unmanned Soyuz 2 in October 1968. He was able to bring his craft from 200 metres (660 ft) to as close as 1 foot (0.30 m), but was unable to dock before exhausting his maneuvering fuel.

The Soviet's first successful manned docking occurred on January 16, 1969 when Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 docked and exchanged two crew members.

The first rendezvous of two spacecraft from different countries took place on June 17, 1975, when an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soyuz spacecraft as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

The first multiple space docking took place when both Soyuz 26 and Soyuz 27 were docked to the Salyut 6 space station during January 1978.


Photos courtesy DVICE and NASA

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