Posted on behalf of Jane Qiu.
It’s another milestone day for China’s space programme. At 2:07pm Beijing time, China’s manned Shenzhou 9 spacecraft (‘Divine Vessel’) successfully docked with Tiangong 1 space module (‘Heavenly Palace’) at an altitude of 340 kilometres.
Three hours later, after a series of safety checks, Jing Haipeng, commander of the spacecraft, entered Tiangong-1, followed shortly by the other two astronauts onboard Shenzhou 9, Liu Wang and Liu Yang. The entire process was broadcast live on CCTV, China’s state television.
Shenzhou 9 was launched last Friday from the Jiuquan spaceport in Gansu province. It’s the fourth time China sent astronauts to space but its first manned mission in a series of efforts to build a space station by 2020.
“This is a magnificent achievement,” Zhang Qiang, a chief engineer at the Beijing-based China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told CCTV. “We are moving one step closer towards building the space station.”
Today’s docking followed last November’s success when the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft docked with Tiangong 1 (see China forges ahead in space). Similar to the earlier attempt, it took place via an automatic control system. On Saturday the astronauts are scheduled to go back to the spacecraft and detach the vessel from the lab module and try to dock with Tiangong 1 through manual control.
In the next few days, Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, will lead a range of scientific experiments in Tiangong 1. These include the effects of weightlessness on brain and heart functions and bone metabolism, as well as analysing the air quality and trace-gas levels in the space module.