China completed its first manual space docking yesterday, a landmark step in the country's programme to build a space station by 2020.
The Shenzhou-IX spacecraft and its three-person crew, including the country's first spacewoman, Liu Yang, docked with the Tiangong-1 space module at around 12.50pm, with state television covering the event live.
The successful experiment has demonstrated China's capabilities to safely transport crew and cargoes to a space station if the autopilot system of the spacecraft suffers malfunctions or a breakdown, according to scientists at the China Academy of Space Technology.
They also said the mastery of manual docking technology coupled with a reliable autopilot docking system showed that China was now technically ready to transport cargo or crew to the International Space Station. Beijing is willing to do so before the launch of its own space station in 2020, they added.
Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, said in Beijing yesterday that the docking was 'a complete success' and a breakthrough in the country's space programme. Since the manned space programme started in 1992, it had cost less than 40 billion yuan, she added.
The arrangements and date for the mission next year, Shenzhou-X, would be decided after a full review of the current mission and the status of the orbiting Tiangong-1 lab module, she said. The Shenzhou-X mission will also include a manned rendezvous and docking with Tiangong-1.
Wu praised the 'excellent performance' over the past eight days of the first Chinese female astronaut, Liu Yang.
'She is in a good mental and physical state,' said Wu, adding that all her physiological signs were normal.
'We have made special arrangements for her life in space. She will tell you whether she was satisfied with the arrangements when she comes back,' said Wu.
Wu said the astronauts would stay in Tiangong-1 for another three to four days and return to earth in a journey lasting no more than a day.
The manual docking was the Shenzhou-IX crew's biggest challenge. It was the first time that Chinese astronauts were given full control of their spacecraft to perform critical manoeuvres requiring such high precision. A miss by a few centimetres could damage the spacecraft and module, mess up the course of flight and threaten the lives of the crew, as both spacecraft have a combined weight of more than 16 tonnes and a collision could damage sensitive onboard equipment.
Senior Colonel Liu Wang controlled Shenzhou-IX during yesterday's manual docking. Sitting in the centre seat of the spacecraft, he jostled a pair of joysticks as the distance between Shenzhou-IX and Tiangong-1 shortened to 140 metres.
The left joystick controlled Shenzhou's up, down, left and right movements, while the right stick governed the ship's rotation to fine-tune its heading. As the spacecraft moved towards Tiangong -1 at less than half a metre per second, Liu kept his eyes on a TV screen as he aimed for Tiangong-1's docking portal by tilting the joysticks occasionally in his hands.
The Shenzhou responded precisely to Liu Wang's correction. The 8-tonne spacecraft moved about with eight rocket propellers. Its laser and microwave radars beaming back data to the ground control in Beijing for engineers to monitor the astronaut's performance. If Liu made a big mistake, the manual control would be immediately overridden by an autopilot to ensure the safety of the crew and two spacecraft.
In an interview with China Central Television before the flight, Commander Liu said that he had practiced the manual docking more than 1,500 times and was '100 per cent confident' he could bring the two spacecraft safely together.
'I don't feel any pressure,' he said. 'I am just a man who is doing a job he loves. I always feel good.'