China has launched an unmanned spacecraft in its latest phase towards its goal of creating its own manned space station by 2020. The Shenzhou VIII is scheduled to dock with another craft in orbit later this week. The Shenzhou VIII was launched on a Long March carrier rocket on Tuesday morning and is scheduled to dock with the Tiangong I space module.
The launch is a major step towards completing the permanent space station by 2020, just as the International Space Station is scheduled to retire, leaving China as the only country with a permanent presence in space. Shenzhou VIII is carrying a German-built incubator containing biological samples for testing during the mission. This marks the first time China is cooperating with another country in the use of a Shenzhou spacecraft.
China is aiming at a fully automated space exercise using laser and satellite systems on the spacecraft.
Efforts to build exchanges with the US have been beset by obstacles as a result of distrust between the two nations over possible military implications. A joint pledge by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao to develop space collaboration has yet to see solid progress.
Report: China takes next step in space station plan (Financial Times, 1 Nov 2011)
Chinese space ambitions are under scrutiny by the US. A report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission released last week stated that Chinese hackers interfered with US government satellites, but Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday that the report was "untrue" and that the commission had ulterior motives.
In 2007 China destroyed one of its satellites, demonstrating its capability of disrupting global communications networks. The explosion, which spread thousands of debris fragments into space was termed by the European Space Agency as "by far the worst breakup event in space history," which further added that even a small fragment could endanger other spacecraft or station upon impact.
Report: China’s Space Station Moves Forward (Bloomberg, 1 Nov 2011)
Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space engineering project, told Xinhua, "Mastering the technology of rendezvous and docking will lay a firm foundation for China to build a space station… Once we have mastered this technology, we will possess the basic technology and capacity to build a space station, and this will open up possibilities for even larger activities in space." But he cautioned, "Since we have never conducted a similar test before and the system is so complicated, we have many unknowns."
Spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, Wu Ping, echoed Zhou’s concerns. "It is fairly difficult and risky to link up two vehicles travelling at high speeds in orbit, with a margin of error of no more than 20cm," she said.
Dr Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) remarked that this was possibly the most significant of China’s space missions since its first manned space flight in 2003. Dr Kulacki, a senior analyst and China project manager at the UCS, which focuses on the security implications of the space programme, said the Shenzhou VIII mission marks a technological breakthrough. He said, "...[the mission] will give them the capability to complete their longstanding plans to have a Chinese-owned and occupied space station in lower Earth orbit by the beginning of the next decade."
Dr Kulacki said China had established its own space programme because the US, and to a smaller degree Russia, had prevented it from participating in the International Space Station. It started building its space plans in the 1980s because of concerns over US developments in the Strategic Defence Initiative. "They feared China would be left behind and would never be able to catch up ... It's more about the capability than anything specific they want to do with it," he remarked.
While Chinese media generally praised the Shenzhou VIII launch, the popular Global Times however was more circumspect, cautioning that the investment entailed risks and did not always provide an immediate return. But it added, "There is no other choice. As long as we are determined to rise in the world and pursue rejuvenation, we need to take risks. Otherwise, China will be a nation with prosperity but subordinated to top powers, and such prosperity depends on the attitudes of others."
If the mission is successful, two more docking exercises will follow in 2012, with at least one of those carrying astronauts.
Report: China sends unmanned craft into space (Guardian, 1 Nov 2011)