China Gears Up for Third Manned Spaceflight
An artist's illustration of Chinese astronauts spacewalking outside their Shenzhou spacecraft. Future Shenzhou missions will feature spacewalks ahead of orbital rendezvous and docking demonstrations.
Credit: China National Space Administration

China is gearing up for its third manned spaceflight, set to include its first ever spacewalk, later this month.

The three-member crew is not yet named for the Shenzhou 7 mission, due to launch sometime between Sept. 25 and Sept. 30 from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province, China, but a spokesman for the launch center told the Shanghai Daily newspaper that preparations were on track for liftoff.

"All the major systems involved in the launching are now in final preparations," the newspaper quoted the unnamed spokesman as saying last week. "The main tests for the spacecraft, the Long March 2F rocket, suits for the space walk and a satellite accompanying the flight have been finished."

In the days leading up to the mission the crew has been busy conducting drills and making final preparations, and are all in good physical and mental condition, he said. Sea search and rescue teams have also been rehearsing plans to rescue the astronauts if any accident should occur during launch to cause the reentry capsule to fall into sea, the state-owned Xinhua news service reported.

In a bold gesture of confidence, China has announced plans to broadcast the spacewalk live. The Shenzhou spacecraft is set to carry its own small satellite, which could be automatically released from the vehicle or let go by astronauts during the spacewalk, to beam footage back to Earth, state media reported. The satellite is equipped with charge coupled device (CCD) cameras to capture the historic moment when the spacewalker steps into space.

China's first spaceflight, the 2003 launch of the Shenzhou 5 mission, made it the third country, after Russia and the United States, to launch a person into space on its own. Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the Earth 14 times during the successful 21-hour flight.

In 2005, China launched the Shenzhou 6 mission, a five-day flight and the nation?s first with two astronauts aboard.

China's Shenzhou spacecraft are based on Russia's three-module Soyuz vehicles, but have been modernized by Chinese engineers. They include an orbital module that can remain in space to carry out experiments after the crew returns in the reentry module. The orbital module is outfitted with solar arrays to supply it with power, and could become the base for a space station or a docking target for future spacecraft.

This third spaceflight was originally scheduled for the end of October, but was moved earlier so that the position of the sun would enable the spacewalk to be performed in sunlight, rather than darkness, China Daily reported.

The five-day mission is aimed at continuing China's journey toward the goal of exploring space and eventually landing on the moon, Chinese space officials have said.