China has completed its second space docking ever, an apparently successful maneuver that linked up two unmanned spacecraft in orbit.
China's Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1 vehicles, which performed the country's first docking Nov. 2, have been orbiting together ever since. Earlier today (Nov. 14), the spacecraft disengaged and then re-docked smoothly about half an hour later.
The docking activities are being hailed as a huge success in China, which hopes to develop its space program with the goal of building a large manned space station by 2020. The ability to link up two spacecraft in orbit is a necessary step toward that goal.
"Mastery of know-how is not always solid until proven by repeated experiments," wrote state news agency Xinhua. "With a string of sophisticated maneuvers, docking, de-linking and re-docking, as part of its current Shenzhou-8 space mission, China has laid a solid stepping stone for deep space exploration."
The Chinese docking came just hours after Russia successfully launched three spaceflyers — two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut — to the International Space Station.
Tiangong 1, a prototype space module for China's planned space station, launched first on Sept. 29. Shenzhou 8, a spacecraft similar to the vehicles that carried China's first astronauts to space, followed with an unmanned liftoff Nov. 3.
Shenzhou 8 is now due to return to Earth Nov. 17, according to Xinhua.
Two more Chinese docking missions are planned for 2012, with one to take place with Chinese astronauts, called Taikonauts, onboard, Chinese space agency officials have said.