China manually docks spacecraft
China has re-affirmed its goal of building a full-fledged space station by 2020, following a successful manual docking between a manned spacecraft and an experimental orbiting lab module.
The Shenzhou 9 and its three-person crew, including the country's first woman in space, Liu Yang, separated about 400m from the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module for about two minutes before re-connecting under the manual control of the astronauts.
"It means China has completely grasped space rendezvous and docking technologies and the country is fully capable of transporting humans and cargo to an orbiter in space, which is essential for building a space station in 2020," the Xinhua news agency said.
Wu Ping, spokesman for China's manned space program, said the next step for the program would be further manned docking exercises using the Shenzhou 10, but she said the program had not yet settled on a timeline for the next launch.
The Shenzhou 9 had already conducted an automated docking with Tiangong 1, on June 18th, a day after it blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
"The automated docking and manual docking are both essential and they serve as a backup for each other," Xinhua reported Zhou Jianping, designer-in-chief of China's manned space program, as saying.
Compared with an automated docking, manual docking is more challenging in terms of orbit control, Xie Jianfeng, a space scientist with the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, told Xinhua yesterday.