While China this week hailed the successful landing of Shenzhou 6, its second manned spacecraft the mission is far from over.
The spacecraft's orbital module, which served as both a living area and space laboratory for Shenzhou 6 astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, will continue to circle Earth for at least six more months after firing its engines to reach a higher orbit, China Central Television (CCTV) reported Thursday.
"This is an important event that will test the capability of the orbital module, to keep it working for a long time in space," Liu Junze, the aircraft controlling office director at Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, told CCTV. "It will also lay the foundations for space station designs in the future."
Shenzhou 6's orbital module - which uses solar panels to generate power - fired its engines twice to boost itself into a 220-mile (355-kilometer) orbit, state media reported.
Fei and Nie landed inside Shenzhou 6's descent module on Oct. 17 in China, concluding a five-day flight to conduct experiments in Earth orbit, test new spaceflight hardware and showcase its space program as a source of national pride.
"I feel that the whole project was a complete success," Nie said in a CCTV interview after the flight. "There's no doubt about that."
China's Shenzhou manned spacecraft are based on Russia's three-part Soyuz vehicles, but are heavily modernized and modified to serve the needs of Chinese astronauts and scientists.
Like the Soyuz, Shenzhou vehicle carry propulsion, orbital and reentry modules, the latter of which is the only component to return to Earth. But unlike Soyuz vehicles, Shenzhou orbital modules carry their own engines and solar panels and can remain in orbit for months at a time. The orbital module for Shenzhou 5 - China's first manned spaceflight - also circled Earth for several months.
According to CCTV reports, the Shenzhou 6 orbital module - like its predecessors - will fly through space to perform a series of experiments.
"This is a different craft than the Soyuz, and it has a different order of capability," Dean Cheng, a China space specialist with the CNA Corp. in Arlington, Virginia, told SPACE.com of the orbital module's flight. "It would be interesting to see what [they] are testing out. Is it science experiments, is it observations, or are they seeing how long the batteries last?"
China has tested a series of orbital modules during its Shenzhou spaceflights culminating with the first experiments conducted by astronauts inside the compartment during Shenzhou 6.
"I think the technical comparison has borne that they did take a proven design and made it their own, they're very upfront about it," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, of the shared lineage between Shenzhou and Soyuz spacecraft in an earlier interview. "A Hummer and Volkswagen Bug have different designs, but they share basic parameters. They all have four wheels."
Chinese space officials have said their efforts are leading toward an eventual manned space station, as well as an unmanned Moon probe set for a 2010 launch.
"We plan to conduct a spacewalk around 2007; and launch target fliers and manage rendezvous and docking in orbit by 2009-2012," said Tang Xianming, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said during a post-flight press conference according to China Daily. "The final stage is to set up a permanent space lab and build a space engineering system."
The potential to link up with orbital modules on future flights could provide China with an ad-hoc space station as it pushes toward building larger orbiting structures, space experts said.
"It's a small space station on the cheap," Johnson-Freese said.
According to state media and Associated Press reports, Tang said China's Shenzhou 6 spaceflight cost about $110 million (900 million yuan) out of the $2.3 billion (19 billion yuan) the country has spent to date on its manned spaceflight program.
In the public eye
Cheng said that China's publicity with the Shenzhou 6 flight - which was broadcast live during launch and landing - shows an understanding of national interest in its spaceflight efforts. Spaceflight officials unveiled a few of the novelty items - including foodstuffs, student paintings and national and Olympic flags - that flew into orbit aboard the spacecraft.
"There is a healthy appetite for space-related items," Cheng said, adding that the details of many of Shenzhou 6's orbital module experiments are likely still remain to be released. "I think the Chinese are feeling their way out on how to be more open."
Instead of the days of silence that followed the Shenzhou 5 flight, which carried astronaut Yang Liwei on a 14-orbit, 21 1/2 -hour flight, the Shenzhou 6 crew were prominently featured on Chinese television and print media.
"At first, we were so excited and we had a lot of work to do, but then we had to catch up with a lot of sleep later," Nie said on CCTV one day after landing. "We wanted to accumulate as much information and experience as possible."
Nie said he felt the entire flight was a success and that sleep came easier in the later half of the spaceflight and in the initial days in orbit, CCTV reported.
"Both of us felt great upon touchdown," Fei said in the CCTV interview. "We remained entirely conscious throughout the landing. We had great close coordination in cutting the parachute. We felt the landing was perfect."
- Shenzhou Rising: China's Second Manned Spaceflight
- Special Report: Emerging China, Engaging China