China finishes space docking test

China finishes space docking test

BEIJING - Reuters
China finishes space docking test

Chinese scientists monitor the docking of the Tiangong-1 space lab module and the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft in space at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centrer. AFP photo

China successfully carried out its first docking exercise on Thursday between two unmanned spacecraft, a key test of the rising power’s plans to secure a long-term manned foothold in space.

The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft joined the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module about 340 km above Earth, in a manoeuvre carried live on state television in the early hours of the morning.

The 10.5 meter-long unmanned Tiangong, launched on Sept. 29, is part of China’s preparations for a space laboratory at some point in the future.

Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior leaders oversaw the operation from a command center in Beijing, a measure of the importance the government attaches to this mission and to China’s space ambitions in general.

“We believe that making this breakthrough and mastering the space docking technology is a meaningful and historic breakthrough for our country and a huge technical leap forward,” Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China’s Manned Space Engineering Programme, told a news conference.

Wu said all of the components in the docking mechanism, as well as 600 onboard instruments, were designed and manufactured by Chinese firms, mostly state-owned enterprises.

Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important aspect of China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills needed to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.

The next stage will be two similar docking exercises in 2012, with at least one expected to carry astronauts.

China aims to have a fully fledged space station by about 2020.

“The planned Chinese space station will be open to global scientists,” the official Xinhua news agency said. “(A) foreign presence might also be welcomed aboard Chinese spacecraft in the future.”

The docking mission is the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space at a time when budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back U.S. manned space launches