Shenzhou-9‘s three taikonauts performed a successful automated docking procedure with space lab Tiangong-1 on Monday, June 18. The crew sent live video feed back to Earth as they docked with, then boarded, the space station.
The docking procedure, which was identical to that conducted by the unmanned Shenzhou-8 in 2011, was completed in 8 minutes. Three hours later the crew, led by commander Jing Haipeng, boarded the station. It is the first of two docking maneuvers to be performed during the thirteen day mission. The second will be a manual docking, the first ever performed by taikonauts.
The crew is expected to remain aboard Tiangong-1 for six days before detaching from the lab in preparation for the next maneuver. While there, they will perform scientific and medical experiments. Although individual Chinese nationals have flown to space before aboard Space Shuttle missions and Soyuz, this was the first group of Chinese to occupy an orbiting vessel and the first time Tiangong-1 has had visitors since its September 2011 launch.
Although a momentous occasion, the technical challenge in this mission is yet to come, as CMSE chief engineer Zhou Jianping was quick to point out. “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 explained. “It will mean China is fully capable of transferring human and cargo to an orbiter in space.”
The 8.5 ton, 15 cubic meter Tiangong-1 is only a preamble to the space station China intends to assemble around 2020. It also seems clear that China hopes to be able to work more closely with International Space Station nations. Many from both inside and outside the country have commented that China’s advancing space capabilities are bound to open up more opportunities for international collaboration in space. China is only the third nation, following Russia and the United States, to develop orbital docking capabilities.
Watch Shenzhou-9’s crew board Tiangong-1: