June 17, 2013
Launching its fifth manned space mission, China has declared its Shenzhou spacecraft fully operational as it prepares to loft an orbital laboratory, a freighter and, around the end of the decade, a space station.
The objectives of the 15-day Shenzhou 10 mission, launched June 11, are to further develop China's technologies for docking and supporting human life in space, laying the groundwork for the space station. With Shenzhou 10, the phase aimed at perfecting docking and spacewalking techniques should be completed.
China will launch a space laboratory within two years, says Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of the manned space program. A freighter, which must be in development, will demonstrate orbital fueling. State news agency Xinhua says the space station would be launched before 2016, possibly referring to lofting of the first module—or perhaps the laboratory, which will be smaller.
The likely masses of the space station modules, around 20 metric tons each, mean that the whole effort is awaiting the introduction into service of the Long March 5 heavy launcher, which was most recently scheduled to make its first flight in 2015 (AW&ST March 25, p. 30).
As in the two previous missions, the docking target of Shenzhou 10 is the Tiangong 1, a space module that has also been referred to and used as an orbital laboratory. Tiangong 1 is nearing the end of its two-year design life. The Shenzhou crew of two men and one woman are tasked with docking with Tiangong twice—once automatically and once manually. Officials warn that Tiangong 1's age presents some risks.
A Long March 2F, identical to that used for Shenzhou 9 last year, launched the latest mission at 09:38 GMT on June 11 from the Jiuquan base in the Gobi desert; the spacecraft reached orbit about 20 min. later. The Long March 2F is China's human-rated rocket, though it was also used to launch the unmanned Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 8. The forthcoming Long March 7 is intended eventually to supplant the Long March 2F for manned missions, although presumably not until it has been used for some years in other roles.
Chinese media emphasize the difficulty that China faces in these missions, because it is limited by the throw-weight to low orbit of the Long March 2F, less than 9 metric tons. In an intended version with four boosters, the Long March 7 will be able to launch 13.5 tons to low Earth orbit.