When the Divine Craft Arrived At the Heavenly Palace

21 Jun

Chinese astronauts Liu Wang, Jing Haipeng and Liu Yang sat inside the Shenzhou 9 capsule as it docked with the orbiting module Tiangong 1 on Monday. Following the docking between Shenzhou 9 (“Divine Craft” and the Tiangong 1 (“Heavenly Palace”) test module on June 18 (video here), Chinese taikonauts began transferring 660 pounds of cargo, to support the next mission, Shenzhou 10, during which taikonauts will live in the module for 24 days. China is only the third country, following the former Soviet Union and the U.S., to conduct a successful docking between two space vessels. The mission also includes China’s first female taikonaut, Liu Yang.

According to Space, the taikonauts are having “fun”.

Now that they have arrived at their new orbital home, the taikonauts will soon start settling in and exploring the Tiangong 1 module. In addition to necessary equipment, a collection of surprise trinkets have been planted around the lab for the astronauts to find, both for fun and to test the crew’s puzzle-solving abilities in orbit.

“Discovering unexpected items by themselves could add more fun to living in space,” said Chen Shanguang, general director of the astronaut system department, Xinhua reported.

But, China has set difficult goals for its space program to achieve.

The Shenzhou-9 mission is the first time China has sent a person into space since 2008. It follows China’s first unmanned space docking in November and is the latest step in a 30-year plan to assemble a space station by about 2020, part of an effort known as Project 921.

When Chinese leaders approved a plan for a space station in 1992, “Chinese space professionals believed they would be latecomers to an expanding human presence in low Earth orbit,” said Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a recent research note.

“Ironically, by the time they finish their space station in the early 2020s, the Chinese might be the only people left up there,” he added.

Washington’s decision to end the shuttle program left Russia with a virtual monopoly over manned spaceflight. China’s space program, while decades behind the achievements of the U.S. and Russia, has made steady progress in recent years.

Its planned space station is expected to come online around 2020, just as the $100 billion International Space Station is expected to cease operation. The U.S., meanwhile, is hoping the private sector can pick up where the shuttle program left off.

Now that docking technology has been achieved, analysts say, other significant hurdles to establishing a space station include the logistics of keeping humans alive in space for extended periods.

A Chinese space station’s launch will also rely in part on the successful development of the Long March-5 rocket, which officials have said will make its maiden flight in 2014.

How does the Tiangong and Shenzhou 9 compare to other space vehicles, past, current, and future? Supernova Condensate has an informative graphic.

space vehicles to scale.png

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