Beijing: A Chinese unmanned spacecraft headed
off to space today for the country`s first docking mission,
paving the way for the establishment of China`s first space
station by 2020 to rival Mir, the space lab being operated by
Russian and US astronauts.
The successful launch of unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 in
the early hours today from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in
northwest Gobi desert was successful, Commander-in-chief of
China`s manned space programme Chang Wanquan announced.
The spacecraft was sent into the designated orbit by Long
It is heading for rendezvous with Tiangong-1, or "the
Heavenly Palace" that was put into space on September 29 for
the country`s first space docking, which was expected to take
place in the next two days.
The move, if successful, will pave the way for China to
operate a permanent space station around 2020 and make it the
world`s third to do so after the US and Russia. This will be
the second space station after the Mir space lab launched in
2001 by Russia.
Mir is currently managed by Russian and US space
The docking of the Shenzhou-8 will take place at a height
of 343 km above the Earth`s surface.
It will return to the Earth after two docking tryouts.
Chinese and German scientists will conduct 17 life science
space experiments on the Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou-8, Wu
Ping, spokeswoman for China`s manned space programme, said.
To ensure the success of the mission, Chinese space
engineers have made "considerable modifications" on Shenzhou-8
to previous versions of the spacecraft.
Shenzhou-8, with a length of nine metres and a maximum
diameter of 2.8 metres, has a liftoff weight of 8.082 tonnes.
"More than half of the 600 or so sets of equipment have
been modified, while newly designed devices account for about
15 per cent of the total," Wu said.
The modifications were mainly aimed at arming the
spacecraft with automatic and manual rendezvous and docking
capacities, and enhancing the vehicle`s performance, safety
and reliability, Wu said.
"After the improvements, the spacecraft will be able to
connect with the target spacecraft Tiangong-1 for 180 days,"
The unmanned spacecraft is also equipped with devices for
recording real images and mechanical parameters during its
flight, to test the space docking before a manned attempt.
Once China has mastered the technologies of rendezvous and
docking, it will be equipped with the basic technologies and
capacity required for building a space station, Zhou Jianping,
chief designer of China`s manned space programme said.
Today`s mission will be followed by launches of spaceships
Shenzhou-9 and -10 in 2012, which are also expected to dock
"At least one mission of the two will be manned," Wu said.
The crew members, including probably two female
astronauts, have already been selected for the possible manual
space docking mission in 2012 and are being trained for manual
The space docking tests and experiments will provide
crucial experience of China`s construction of a 60-tonne
permanent manned space station around 2020 when Chinese
astronauts are expected to operate more research projects in
"It will make it possible for China to carry out space
exploration of a larger scale," Zhou said.