Photo of the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft undergoing testing earlier in 2011.
Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office
China will launch an unmanned spacecraft in November to make the country's first in-space docking, state media reported Wednesday (Oct. 26).
The Shenzhou 8 mission is set to launch early next month Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The spacecraft is due to dock with the robotic Tiangong-1 module, which was launched separately in September. That craft is a prototype space lab, part of China's long-term goal of building its own manned space station in orbit.
The Tiangong 1-Shenzhou 8 maneuver will be China's first spacecraft docking. It's a necessary step toward assembling a larger space station.
In preparation for the launch, Shenzhou 8 and its carrier rocket, an upgraded Chinese Long March-2F, were transferred to the launch pad this morning, state news agency Xinhua reported. The vehicle took two hours to travel almost a mile (1,500 meters) along a 66-foot wide (20 meter) railway from its assembly and testing center.
Final testing of the spacecraft is set to take place over the coming days, Lu Jinrong, the launch center's chief engineer, told Xinhua. The main assembly and testing of the spacecraft and rocket system is complete, he said.
Lu said the Tiangong 1 ("Heavenly Palace") module is performing well in space, and is ready for the docking test. If the upcoming mission is successful, it will be followed by two more docking missions with the Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10 spacecraft, yet to launch.
Ultimately, China hopes to build a 60-ton space station by 2020. The nation is only the third, behind Russia and the United States, to independently launch people to space.