China is aggressively accelerating the pace of its manned space program by developing a 17,000 lb. man-tended military space laboratory planned for launch by late 2010. The mission will coincide with a halt in U.S. manned flight with phase-out of the shuttle.
The project is being led by the General Armaments Department of the People's Liberation Army, and gives the Chinese two separate station development programs.
Shenzhou 8, the first mission to the outpost in early 2011 will be flown unmanned to test robotic docking systems. Subsequent missions will be manned to utilize the new pressurized module capabilities of the Tiangong outpost.
Importantly, China is openly acknowledging that the new Tiangong outpost will involve military space operations and technology development.
Also the fact it has been given a No. 1 numerical designation indicates that China may build more than one such military space laboratory in the coming years.
"The People's Liberation Army's General Armament Department aims to finish systems for the Tiangong-1 mission this year," says an official Chinese government statement on the new project. Work on a ground prototype is nearly finished.
The design, revealed to the Chinese during a nationally televised Chinese New Year broadcast, includes a large module with docking system making up the forward half of the vehicle and a service module section with solar arrays and propellant tanks making up the aft.
The concept is similar to manned concepts for Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle.
While used as a target to build Chinese docking and habitation experience, the vehicle's military mission has some apparent parallels with the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program cancelled in 1969 before it flew any manned missions. MOL's objectives were primarily reconnaissance and technology development.
While U.S. military astronauts were to be launched in a Gemini spacecraft atop their MOLs, in China's case, the module will operate autonomously and be visited periodically by Chinese astronauts, to perhaps retrieve reconnaissance imagery or other sensor data. At least one unmanned Shenzhou was equipped with a military space intelligence eavesdropping antenna array.
Along with launch of the outpost, China is also beginning mass production of Shenzhou taxi spacecraft, says Zhang Bainan, the chief Shenzhou design manager.
All previous Shenzhous have been built as individual custom spacecraft for widely spaced missions. But China is now moving to Shenzhou assembly line production to increase flight rates.
In addition to operational mission objectives the Chinese mission plans will provide a propaganda windfall in China and send a global geopolitical message relative to declining U.S. space leadership.
The Tiangong vehicle's debut in late 2010, and increase in Chinese manned mission flight rates will coincide with the planned termination of the U.S. space shuttle program and a five year hiatus in American manned space launches.
The first manned NASA Orion/Ares manned mission to Earth orbit is not likely until 2015 with manned lunar operations no earlier than 2020.
During that period China can rack up multiple attention getting missions, while Americans launched in the Russian Soyuz will draw meager attention unless they are involved in an emergency.
Along with the Tiangong announcement comes another major revelation ? that China now has two manned space station programs under development.
? The new Tiangong series, that can be launched on the same type Long March 2F booster used to carry Soyuz-type Shenzhou manned transports.
? And a larger 20-25 ton "Mir class" station that will follow by about 2020 launched on the new oxygen/hydrogen powered Long March 5 boosters.
The Chinese have shown this editor numerous space station models and drawings during six trips to China over the last several years.
All of those concepts looked very similar to the Soviet Mir with a core and add-on modules-- nothing like the Tiangong just revealed in China.
The heavier Mir type design, however, is the one being pursued for launch on the new Long March 5, Liu Fang, vice president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) told me during a visit to Beijing last April. It will weigh twice as much as the man tended military outpost.
The Tiangong design is designed for short tasks or limited overnight stays in a pressurized shirtsleeve environment, while the heavier Chinese stations planned for several years from now will be for longer term habitation.
In addition to the manned program, the Chinese unmanned program has also reached a major milestone with the Chang'e lunar orbiter.
The spacecraft ended its 16 month science mission March 1 when commanded to fire thrusters to begin a 36 min. descent toward lunar impact at 0813 GMT.
The impact point was calculated to be at 1.50 deg. south latitude and 52.36 deg. east longitude. on the opposite side of the Moon from where the descent was begun.
Chang'e-1 began its retrofire maneuver for capture by lunar gravity at 0736 GMT under the command of two ground control stations, one at Qingdao in eastern China and the other at Kashi in northwest China.
The spacecraft had been launched from Xichang on board a Long March 3 on October 24, 2007 and used its imaging system to obtain mapping imagery of the entire moon.
It was command deorbited to provide Chinese engineers with experience in calculating and controlling the descent of a spacecraft in lunar orbit. Lunar "masscons", subsurface concentrations of heavy materials, can affect lunar gravity fields and orbital trajectories involved in deorbit.
This relates directly to China's follow on plan to land a nuclear powered unmanned lunar rover by 2012-2013 followed by an unmanned sample return mission about 2017.
In 2010-2011, before the rover and sample return missions are flown a Chinese-technology mission may be sent to the Moon to further demonstrate landing technologies. But the Chinese were not clear on whether it would go all the way to the surface.
If successful, these missions also could upstage U.S. lunar plans for a time.
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