China Launches the Shenzhou 8 Spacecraft, To Dock With the Tiangong-1 Module
November 1, 2011 • 10:28AM

Just before 6 am Beijing time November 1, or 6 pm EDT October 31st, China launched the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft, which, in about two days, will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-1 test module. Tiangong-1 was launched on September 29th, and serves as the docking target for the Shenzhou, which itself is similar to the manned version which three times has taken Chinese astronauts to Earth orbit.

About ten minutes after launch, Shenzhou's solar panels unfurled, and Beijing mission control declared the launch a success. For the next two days, the Shenzhou will make five orbital adjustements to allow it to catch up with Tiangong-1. On board are a host of experiments, including a joint life science experiment with Germany.

If the Shenzhou-8/Tiangong-1 docking is successful later this week, it is planned that Shenzhou-9 will launch in the first quarter of next year, and carry a crew to dock with the module. Tiangong-1 will be man-tended, or visited for brief periods of time, as it does not carry enough supplies or adequate life support for long-duration stays.

Later, Tiangong-2 will launch, consisting mainly of scientific experiments. Tiangong-3 will be a cargo ship, demonstrating the ability to transfer supplies, which will be needed for the resupply of a space station. China plans to have a functioning long-duration space station, by 2020, to include a core module and two experiment modules, which space officials explained this evening would have a docking system "like the [Russian] Mir station." It would have docking ports to receive supply ships, and crewed Shenzhou craft. Since, at the current moment, the International Space Station, in which the U.S. will not allow China's participation, is only approved for operation until 2020, there is already speculation that China's station, which will be open to cooperation, will be the only show in town.

Commentators interviewed on China Central TV following the launch could not help but compare the slow but very steady progress in the Chinese space program, to the "going nowhere" space program in the U.S.