Tiangong 1 Manned - Shenzhou
September 29, 2011 13:5:51
China Launches Tiangong-1 Space Lab
By Robert Gass

JIUQUAN – China has successfully launched its first mini-space station Tiangong-1. Lift off occurred on time at 9:16 pm (Beijing time) on Thursday September 29, 2011.

Editors Note: Additional photos can be found on our facebook page:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/interspacenews/108744115825652

And in the Shenzhou section of this site: http://www.interspacenews.com/Shenzhou/tabid/174/Default.aspx

Here is a video of the launch http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=49aGnLOpdZs

Chinese President Hu Jianto was on hand to witness the launch from the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center along with other high ranking government officials. The leaders were seen applauding and shaking hands during the launch.

Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace-1” in mandarin, is the first in a series of mini space stations that China plans to launch to prepare for the construction of a 70 ton space station by the year 2020. The module is 35 feet long and 11 feet in diameter making it slightly smaller than the Soviet Salyut space stations. It consists of two main modules. The first is a resource module which is a narrow cylinder that juts out the back of the spacecraft. It has two solar panels that provide power to Tiangong-1 and also contains all of the spacecraft’s life support and maneuvering equipment.

 
 Source: China Daily

The second module is the experiment module. This is where the astronauts will work during their stay at the lab. The module has about 15 cubic meters of habitable space inside and has been fitted with a docking port at one end. It is interesting to note that the docking port is identical to the one that both Russia and the United States use on their spacecraft. It is believed that the Chinese did this intentionally so that their spacecraft would be compatible with the International Space Station.

The interior of the experiment module has been painted with Earth tones on the floor and sky tones on the ceiling so that astronauts working within will have a sense of up and down even though there is no up and down in space. There is a small sleeping station at one end large enough for one man to sleep in. There is also an independent communication system and an entertainment system inside the module. The Orbital module of the Shenzhou fairy spacecraft will contain sleeping quarters for the other two members of the crew as well as a kitchen and toilet facilities.

The primary function of the spacecraft is to serve as a docking target but once this has been achieved there are a variety of experiments on board. Two windows inside the experiment module will allow the crew to conduct Earth observations. Observations of China’s farm lands will be conducted using a special hyperspectral camera that has been installed inside the module. The camera will enable scientists to monitor such things as heavy metal pollution, pesticide residue, and plant disease. In addition to the camera the spacecraft comes equipped with facilities to study photonic crystals – a material that is expected to revolutionize information technologies here on Earth and other expariments.

Now that Tiangong-1 is in space, the next step will be to check the spacecraft’s health which will take several weeks. Once all has been confirmed to be in working order, engineers will adjust the spacecraft’s atmosphere to make sure that the correct amounts of oxygen, moisture, and heat are present. The spacecraft will then be lowered from its 350 km orbit to a 343 km orbit. With this accomplished China will launch the un-manned Shenzhou 8. This launch is expected in early November. The two spacecraft will  rendezvous and dock about two days following launch. This will mark the first time that China has docked two spacecraft in orbit.

Cut away view of a Shenzhou spacecraft. The orbital module is on the left, the descent module is in the center, and the service module is at the right Credit: CCTV

Tiangong-1 and Shenzhou 8 will stay docked for about 12 days while engineers evaluate how well the two spacecraft are interfacing. Shenzhou 8 will then un-dock and fly independently for a period of time before once again approaching Tiangong-1 and re-docking. Once the docking experiments are over the two spacecraft will separate. Shenzhou 8 will return to Earth and its service module will burn up in the atmosphere. As is customary, the spacecraft’s orbital module will unfold its own set of solar panels and conduct an independent mission for several months before it is also destroyed in the atmosphere.

If everything goes well with the Shenzhou 8 mission China plans to launch three astronauts to the lab early next year aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. This will mark China’s first manned space docking. Chinese space officials are quick to note that if things do not go according to plan on Shenzhou 8, Shenzhou 9 will not carry people. But assuming that all goes well the astronauts will board Tiangong-1 and stay for several weeks before returning home. China plans to launch Shenzhou 10 before the end of 2012. During this mission the astronauts are expected to stay for even longer than they did during the Shenzhou 9 mission.

Given that China has launched only three manned spacecraft since its first back in 2003, launching three in one year marks a significant ramping up of the country’s spaceflight capabilities.

Tiangong-1 will be followed by Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 with a three year interval between each launch. Each of these labs will build upon the accomplishments of the others. Eventually these labs will all be evolved to become a series of radial laboratory modules attached to a core module that will form China’s first true space station. Other Tiangong modules will be evolved into space freighters that will carry large amounts of cargo to the station. China plans to orbit the first components of the station in 2020.

 
 China's planned 70 ton space station. Credit: Xinhua

In order to accommodate Tiangong-1 China had to significantly modify its Long March 2F booster. Over 170 such modifications were made including a new larger payload fairing and reshaped boosters that can produce more thrust. Many of the modifications stem from the loss of an experimental satellite aboard a similar booster last month. The incident prompted a one month delay in the launch of Tiangong-1. The launch was delayed an additional two days due to weather.

It is interesting to note that once the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft docks it will mark the first time two separate orbiting stations have been occupied simultaneously – Tiangong-1 and ISS. 

Contact the author: Robert@interspacenews.com

 
 Diagram of the Long March 2F booster used to launch Tiangong-1 Credit: Xinhua
Launch of Tiangong-1 Photo Credit: Xinhua

Contact The Author- Robert@Interspacenews.com
 

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