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China Set for 1st Manned Space Docking Test

Launch of Shenzhou 9 on June 16, 2012.
A Chinese Long March 2F rocket launches on the Shenzhou 9 mission, China's first manned space docking flight and first flight of a female astronaut, on June 16, 2012 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. (Image credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office)

China is gearing up to perform its first-ever manned space docking Monday (June 18), a feat that would put it in the company of history's two greatest spacefaring nations, the United States and Russia.

China's Shenzhou 9 space capsule — which launched Saturday (June 16) carrying three astronauts, including the country's first female spaceflyer — is expected to link up with the unmanned Tiangong 1 space lab around 3 p.m. Monday Beijing time (3 a.m. EDT; 0700 GMT), according to Chinese media reports.

To date, the only two countries to pull off a manned orbital docking are the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, which first did so in 1966 and 1969, respectively.

Shenzhou 9 will dock with Tiangong 1 twice, with the first hookup being automated. At some point, the two spacecraft will separate, and the three taikonauts, as China's astronauts are known, will perform the second docking manually.

Forty-six-year-old Jing Haipeng leads the taikonaut crew, which also includes Liu Wang, 42, and 33-year-old Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut. All are members of the Communist Party of China and former pilots with the People's Liberation Army; Jing flew on China's last manned spaceflight, which took place in 2008.

Two of the taikonauts will live aboard Tiangong 1 during the 13-day mission, while one will stay aboard Shenzhou 9 at all times in case of emergency, Chinese officials have said.

A look inside China's Tiangong 1 space lab, which launched into orbit in September 2011. (Image credit: Dragon in Space)

Shenzhou-9's flight is considered a key step in China's plan to build a permanently staffed space station in Earth orbit. The nation hopes to have a 60-ton station and up and running by 2020. (For comparison, the International Space Station weighs about 430 tons.)

While Shenzhou 9's flight is China's first attempt at a crewed space docking, the nation has successfully linked up two robotic spacecraft in orbit. In November, the unmanned Shenzhou 8 craft docked twice with Tiangong 1 before returning safely to Earth.

Shenzhou 9's mission is China's fourth manned spaceflight, following taikonaut launches in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Another manned mission to Tiangong 1 — which launched to orbit in September 2011 — could come later this year, Chinese officials have said.

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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.