Risky mission tests confidence
Mainland space authorities say they have made more than 100 contingency plans for a high-risk space mission, involving the rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft in the next few days.
The unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft is scheduled to be launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu at about 6am today. It is expected to dock with space laboratory Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, within 48 hours of launch.
Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for the manned space programme, told a press conference at the launch centre yesterday that it was a high-risk mission, Xinhua reported.
'It is fairly difficult and risky to link up two vehicles travelling at high speeds in orbit, with a margin of error of no more than 20cm,' she said.
Last year, a Russian cargo mission carrying 2.6 tonnes of supplies missed the International Space Station by more than three kilometres because it went into an uncontrollable spin.
But Chinese scientists and engineers seem confident.
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the manned space programme, told Xinhua that they had considered anything that could go wrong.
And with the aid of the latest electronics, the space programme felt much more comfortable than the United States and Soviet Union agencies were when they first attempted similar manoeuvres more than four decades ago, Zhou added.
'We therefore stand on a higher ground, building a more efficient, precise and economic system,' Zhou said. 'We are so confident that we will broadcast our first rendezvous and docking live in high definition, the first country to do it.'
After launch, the Shenzhou will fire its thrusters five times as it climbs, adjusting its orbit until it reaches a point 50 kilometres below the Tiangong, according to an official schedule.
From there, the two spacecraft will establish direct communication through multiple channels, such as microwave and laser, to inform each other of their precise positions.
The Shenzhou will then climb again, following a path to the tail of the Tiangong.
The approach will rely on their onboard computers, without the intervention of ground stations.
The docking is expected to take 15 minutes, and if successful, the two ships will separate and dock again. The manoeuvres are a key part of plans to build a Chinese space station.
The Shenzhou spacecraft will return and land in Inner Mongolia, leaving Tiangong to wait for two more missions next year.
Wu said some foreign scientists were participating in the Shenzhou VIII mission, with German scientists set to conduct 17 research projects with Chinese partners to study microgravity and life science.
Whether the next spacecraft, Shenzhou IX, will be manned - or whether Shenzhou X will have female astronauts aboard - will depend on the outcome of this week's mission.
Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, said that, once completed, the mainland's space station would strike visitors as a villa compared with earlier craft.
According to Xinhua, Yang said: 'If we liken the return capsule on the spacecraft Shenzhou V that took me into space to a one-room apartment, the future space station China is trying to build might be compared to a spacious villa.'