Tiangong 1 Manned - Shenzhou
June 18, 2012 17:51:41
Shenzhou-9 Docks To Tiangong-1
By Robert Gass

BEIJING –  In what is being heralded as a quantum leap forward for its manned space program, China has succeeded in docking it 5,000 plus pound Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with the 8.5 ton Tiangong-1 orbiting space lab marking the first time it has accomplished such a feet. The docking was accomplished  autonomously at 2:07 pm local time. The crew then entered the lab three hours later.

Credit: Xinhua

Shenzhou-9 uses the same docking system that both the Unites States and Russia uses on their spacecraft. The spacecraft are first lined up and then guided towards each other using the Shenzhou orbital maneuvering system. Both spacecraft next extend their docking rings and continue their approach until the rings touch. Small latches loch the two rings together creating what is called a “soft docking”. Finally the rings are withdrawn pulling the two spacecraft together. Once in contact a series of larger latches are activated which lock the two vehicles together creating a “hard docking”.

This is very close to the procedure used by both American and Russian manned spacecraft when they dock with the International Space Station. The big difference here is that the Shenzhou-9 crew monitored, but did not actively participate in this docking. the docking. The docking was accomplished autonomously using a set of lasers and microwave reflectors mounted on the two spacecraft. The Russian’s can also dock their spacecraft autonomously but prefer to dock manually.  According to Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's manned space program, the Chinese would also prefer to dock manually and intend to do that towards the end of the mission.

Shenzhou-9 docked to Tiangong-1 Credit: Xinhua

"The real test will be the manual docking attempt six days later he said. "A manual docking, if successful, will demonstrate the country's grasp of essential space rendezvous and docking know-how," he said. "It will mean China is fully capable of transferring human and cargo to an orbiter in space."

Once the docking had been accomplished the crew set about preparing to enter Tiangong-1. Before they could open the hatches the pressure between the two vehicles had to be equalized using a “balance valve” located in the Shenzhou-9 orbital module. The process took about three hours. Commander Jing Haipeng then opened Shenzhou’s hatch and entered the short tunnel between the two spacecraft. After equalizing the pressure between the lab and the docking tunnel he opened Tiangong-1’s hatch and entered the lab. After inspecting the interior he was joined by his crew mates Liu Wang and Liu Yang.

Commander Jing Haipeng enters Tiangong-1 Photo Credit: Xinhua

After posing for some photos Liu Yang returned to the Shenzhou while her crewmates set about activating the lab. It is standard procedure on this mission for  one astronaut to remain in Shenzhou-9 at all times in case an emergency forces the crew to abandon the lab. Liu Yang will get her chance to work in the lab tomorrow.

The two spacecraft are expected to spend 6 days docked.

The Shenzhou-9 crew pose for photos inside the Tiangong-1 lab. Photo Credit: Xinhua

 

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