Sunday, July 31, 2011

China Building A 'Heavenly' Space Station

As the US space program ended thirty years of shuttle flights with the successful completion of the STS-135 mission and is moving away from low earth orbit operations to other goals, the Chinese are going full speed ahead with preparations for the launch of the first module of their Tiangong space station.

Tiangong means 'Heavenly Palace', and the first steps toward building it were undertaken during the three man Shenzhou-7 mission in September 2008 when Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese taikonaut to conduct a spacewalk. 

The first TG-1 module for it is being prepped for a September launch. After it achieves earth orbit an unmanned Shenzhou-8 mission will be launched to commence several weeks of testing of the rendezvous and docking capabilities of the TG-1 module.  

If those tests of the Tiangong-1 module are successful, then manned Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 missions will be sent aloft next year.   The station will be comprised of the core TG-1 module with two experiment modules and docking ports for cargo craft.   The first of the two experiment laboratory modules is planned for a 2016 launch with the completion date for the 60 ton station set for 2020.

In November China will also take its first steps toward its goal of a manned mission to Mars by launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in conjunction with the Russian space program the YG-1 Yingho Mars probe.

The YG-1 was scheduled to be launched in October 2009 but preparation delays with the Russian probe pushed back the launch timetable.  After it takes the year in transit to get to the vicinity of the Red Planet the two probes will separate and orbit the planet independently.

China is also interested in participating in the International Space Station.  The docking rings on the Tiangong 1 are supposed to be compatible with the ISS ones, but I haven't been able to confirm that for certain yet. 

The 60 ton Tiangong 1 is scheduled for completion by 2020, but they'll need to have the first critical step of that process, the launch and successful insertion into orbit of the TG-1 module be executed  successfully in a few weeks .

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