Shenzhou 6 Crew Tests Spacecraft’s Capabilities
Shenzhou 6 astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng appear in work clothes in this video image taken from inside their reentry capsule.
Credit: China National Space Administration/Xinhua.

The two astronauts aboard China's Shenzhou 6 spacecraft spent their second day in orbit testing the stability of their vehicle and will guide it through an orbital maneuver Friday, the country's state media reported Thursday.

Shenzhou 6 astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng repeatedly opened and closed the doors between their spacecraft's reentry and orbital modules - sometimes using exaggerated force - to check the hatch's integrity, according to China's Xinhua News Agency.

A schematic of Shenzhou 5 CREDIT: Simon Zajc/Elizabeth Lagana. Click to enlarge.

As part of the "anti-disturbance" experiments, the astronauts also donned and doffed their bulky, 22-pound (10-kilogram) spacesuits, and tested a condensation water extraction system aboard their spacecraft, Xinhua said.

Zhang Shuting, deputy designer of China's spacecraft system, reportedly told the news agency that, with the experiments concluded, Shenzhou 6 is fully capable of enduring whatever actions its crew performs inside.

Fei and Nie are expected to perform an "orbital maintenance operation" early Friday (Beijing Time) to adjust their spacecraft's flight around Earth, Xinhua said, adding that Shenzhou 6's trajectory had deviated toward Earth slightly.

The two astronauts - also known as "taikonauts" - launched into space at 9:00 a.m. on Oct. 12 Beijing Time, about 9:00 p.m. EDT Oct.11 (0100 Oct. 12 GMT), from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China. The mission is China's second manned spaceflight and its first to carry a two-astronaut crew. Shenzhou 5, the nation's first manned flight, launched astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit on Oct. 15, 2003.

New records

By mid-day Oct. 13 EDT, the astronauts had circled the Earth about 23 times and spent more than 34 hours in space, breaking China's earlier human spaceflight record.  During Shenzhou 5, yang orbited the Earth a total of 14 times before landing safely on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia 21 ? hours after launch.

Before launch, Shenzhou 6's spaceflight was anticipated to be a five-day mission, though recent unconfirmed state media reports have suggested it may end up to two days early, according to the Shanghai Daily newspaper.

While Chinese space officials have not released an official announcement of any changes in Shenzhou 6's Earth return, the Shanghai Morning Post reported - citing an unnamed source - that the spacecraft could land in Inner Mongolia by 6:00 a.m. Beijing Time Saturday, the Daily said, adding that another newspaper suggested the flight could land Friday.

Details emerge for Shenzhou 6, future missions

Both astronauts were reportedly in good health as they concluded their second day of flight operations.

Li Yongzhi, the spaceflight's chief doctor, told Xinhua that the astronauts will fill out a questionnaire, which details their orbital experiences such as sleep quality and other flight aspects, that is coded to protect their privacy.

"Astronauts have their own privacy," Li told Xinhua. "We are responsible for keeping it secret for them."

Li said that the Shenzhou 6 crew had eaten four meals and each slept once, in seven-hour shifts, by the end of their second day, the news agency reported.

Some light was shed on the day-to-day living requirements of China's astronauts in Li's discussion with Xinhua.

Li reportedly told the news agency that Shenzhou 6's space toilet requires astronauts to use a soft plastic hose and air pump system to collect waste in a sealed container for stowage.

Scientists also prepared a chewing gum-like cleanser, edible toothpaste and a "tooth-cover" made from germ-free gauze for Fei and Nie to use to clean their teeth, as well as special wipes and moisturizer for body cleansing, Xinhua said.

Meanwhile, even as Fei and Nie orbit Earth aboard Shenzhou 6, new details emerged in China's press Thursday regarding the country's next two manned spaceflights.

According to the Shanghai Daily newspaper, China's third manned mission - Shenzhou 7 - will launch in 2007 and is expected to include a tethered spacewalk and a docking experiment.

The Daily quoted Han Hongyin, of the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, who reportedly helped design the propulsion system used by Shenzhou vehicles, on the launch projection.

"We will test space technology individually before the launch of the country's first space station," Han told the Daily, adding that at least two astronauts would fly aboard Shenzhou 7.

The Daily quoted Han as saying that an actually docking between a Shenzhou vehicle and an unmanned orbiter target would be reserved for a Shenzhou 8 mission, though did not specify a potential launch target for that flight.

In a separate report, Zhang Bainan - chief designer of China's spacecraft system - told Xinhua that the Shenzhou vehicle to fly on the Shenzhou 8 mission will become the country's final spacecraft design for future flights.  

Minor changes may be required to suite the specific needs of individual flights, but the basic shape, control systems and data transmission protocols will be identical in spacecraft from Shenzhou 8 onward, Xinhua reported.

Shenzhou 6 recovery rehearsals complete

Shenzhou 6 flight officials also conducted a final recovery drill in the Siziwang Banner region of Inner Mongolia where the spacecraft and its two astronauts are expected to land, state media reported.

Recovery teams conducted the third and final landing drill Thursday night with six helicopters and 14 special vehicles prepared to aid Shenzhou 6's post-landing operations, Xinhua said.

On Wednesday, state media reported that a herdswoman in the Otog Qi region of Inner Mongolia had recovered the data recorder for the Long March 2F rocket that boosted Shenzhou 6 into orbit.

The flight recorder was designed to separate from the rocket's second stage as it dropped back to the ground over Otog Qi, said Zhu Habin, who heads a land emergency rescue team, according to Xinhua.

The herdswoman, Lian Hua, returned the data recorder to Chinese space officials for later study, the news agency said.