BEIJING (Reuters) - China launched an unmanned spacecraft on Tuesday ahead of a docking exercise that will be a key test of the rising power’s plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space.
A Long March rocket blasted off from northwest China before dawn, lofting the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft into an initial orbit 200 km (124 miles) above Earth, a live broadcast on Chinese television showed.
Within two days, the Shenzhou 8 will join the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module about 340 km above Earth. The 10.5 metre-long unmanned Tiangong, launched on Sept. 29, is part of China’s exploratory preparations for a space lab.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels will be an important hurdle in China’s efforts to conquer the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long stretches.
“Mastering the technology of rendezvous and docking will lay a firm foundation for China to build a space station,” Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s Manned Space Engineering Project, told the official Xinhua news agency.
“Once we have mastered this technology, we will possess the basic technology and capacity to build a space station, and this will open up possibilities for even larger activities in space,” Zhou said in the interview published on Monday.
Chinese space engineers aim to keep pressure, temperatures and humidity on the Tiangong 1 as if astronauts were already on board, Gregory Kulacki, the China Project manager with the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in an online commentary about the launch (http://allthingsnuclear.org).
“Making sure those parameters are stable before, during and after docking with the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft will define whether this mission is a success or failure.”
Beijing is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia. The Tiangong 1 is a trial module, not the building block of a space station.
But the docking mission will be the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space, alongside its growing military and diplomatic presence, and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches.
If the mission is a success, the next stage will be two similar docking exercises in 2012, with at least one carrying astronauts, a spokeswoman for China’s space programme said on Monday.
China aims to have a fully-fledged space station by about 2020. Zhou, the project designer, said China’s station would weigh 60 tonnes and the country was still developing a rocket capable of carrying the big payloads needed to build it.
“I don’t think they’re in a hurry. I think they prioritize safety and success over speed,” Kulacki, the U.S. expert, said in a telephone interview, referring to China’s plans. He said he would not be surprised if date for a space lab slipped a few years.
Russia, the United States and other countries jointly operate the 400 tonne International Space Station, to which China does not belong. But the United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.
Russia launched its first unmanned space flight to supply the International Space Station on Sunday after an August crash left a half-sized crew on the orbital outpost.
NASA has unveiled plans for a deep-space rocket to carry astronauts to the moon and Mars, and U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a human expedition to an asteroid by 2025 and a journey to Mars in the 2030s.
China launched its first manned space mission in 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times. It launched its second moon orbiter last year after it became only the third country to send its astronauts walking in space outside their orbiting craft in 2008.
Beijing also plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover in 2012. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon after 2020.
Reporting by Chris Buckley and Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie