HOME IN THE SKY: TV screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center shows astronauts Jing Haipeng (right), Liu Wang (left) and Liu Yang at the orbiting Tiangong-1 lab module on June 18 (WANG YONGZHUO)
At 2:15 p.m. on June 18, China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft completed its automated rendezvous and docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 module, a prototype space lab launched in September last year. The live-televised docking procedure took eight minutes and is seen as a key step toward building a permanent space station.
After the docking, the three astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-9 entered the Tiangong-1, becoming the first Chinese to enter an orbiter in space. "They will carry out scientific experiments, technical tests and physical exercises in the Tiangong-1 for about 10 days," said Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space program.
After completing the country's first two robotic space dockings with the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, the Tiangong-1 went into long-term operation in orbit 343 km above the Earth on November 17 last year.
"It has since completed tasks such as orbit maintenance, equipment inspection and toxic gas detection, and carried out related scientific experiments," Wu said. "With this manned docking mission, China is expected to fully test its space rendezvous and docking technologies and check the space lab module's ability to accommodate astronauts."
TAKING OFF: Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, atop an upgraded Long March-2F carrier rocket, blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 6:37 p.m. on June 16 (WEI YAO)
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft blasted off at 6:37 p.m. on June 16, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, atop an upgraded Long March-2F carrier rocket.
"The launch of the Shenzhou-9 is a highly influential event that marks an important milestone for the development of China's space technology," said Cui Jijun, Director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the creation of China's manned space program, which was officially initiated on September 21, 1992. The launch of the Shenzhou-9 is the program's 10th launch and the country's fourth manned spaceflight.
The spacecraft is scheduled to spend 13 days in outer space. It is the first time China's astronauts will stay in orbit for more than 10 days. The previous record was five days, set by the Shenzhou-6 crew in October 2005.
China aims to build a space station around 2020 based on the space rendezvous and docking technologies that are being tested. Several components will be sent into space separately before being assembled into a space station through a variety of docking procedures.
Besides the automated docking on June 18, the Shenzhou-9 and the Tiangong-1 will also carry out the country's first manual space docking on June 24.
"In terms of their roles, astronauts are turning into 'drivers' rather than 'passengers,'" said He Yu, chief commander of the Shenzhou-9 mission. "Should any emergency occur, the human brain is more reliable than the computer."