Summer launch for next mission
Three Chinese astronauts will blast off on a Long March rocket and board the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) space laboratory, orbiting above the earth, between June and August, mainland authorities said yesterday.
The taikonauts, whose identities remain secret, would break many records in China's brief but ambitious history of human space flight, some space experts said.
'They will be the first to use a real lavatory and sleep in a bed, to say the least,' Professor Jiao Weixin, of Peking University's school of earth and space sciences, said yesterday.
Their spaceship, Shenzhou IX, will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong laboratory under manual control, a spokesman for China's manned space programme said. Colonel Yang Liwei was the first Chinese astronaut nine years ago.
The ship's predecessor, Shenzhou VIII, performed the manoeuvre under computer control, without any human interference, last year. That success gave the latest mission clearance and confidence, the programme said. The spokesman did not reveal what the astronauts would do at the laboratory, how long they would stay or whether any would be female.
Jiao said a summer launch was a bit unusual as most Chinese manned space flights took off in autumn, near the National Day holiday.
But he said the mainland's space projects had developed so rapidly that officials had been left with less room to schedule space flights for the celebration of political events. 'More than 20 satellites and spaceships have lined up for take-off this year,' Jiao said. 'Their economic and defence value goes far beyond political fireworks.'
He said the Shenzhou IX mission was even more likely to succeed than the previous Shenzhou VIII as the automatic docking system had proved reliable. Failure would not occur unless computers and humans all made some terrible mistakes.
Tiangong is a dwarf compared with the gigantic International Space Station - about 10 metres long and three metres in diameter - but astronauts will have room to do scientific experiments and bioengineering tests, such as playing games and exercising, that were not previously possible, Jiao said. 'A small step into the space lab is a big stride for the Chinese space programme,' he said. But China's capabilities still trail those of the US by about 50 years, he said.