Shenzhou 6 Orbital Module Reaches Higher Orbit

While Chinathis week hailed the successful landing of Shenzhou 6, its second manned spacecraft the mission is far from over.

Thespacecraft's orbital module, which served as both a living area and spacelaboratory for Shenzhou6 astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, will continue to circle Earthfor at least six more months after firing its engines to reach a higher orbit,China Central Television (CCTV) reported Thursday.

"This is animportant event that will test the capability of the orbital module, to keep itworking for a long time in space," Liu Junze, the aircraft controlling officedirector at Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, told CCTV. "It willalso lay the foundations for space station designs in the future."

Shenzhou6's orbital module - which uses solar panels to generate power - fired itsengines twice to boost itself into a 220-mile (355-kilometer) orbit, statemedia reported.

Fei and Nielandedinside Shenzhou 6's descent module on Oct. 17 in China, concluding a five-dayflight to conduct experiments in Earth orbit, test new spaceflight hardware andshowcase its space program as a source of national pride.

"I feelthat the whole project was a complete success," Nie said in a CCTV interview afterthe flight. "There's no doubt about that."    

Orbitaloperations

China'sShenzhou manned spacecraft are based on Russia's three-part Soyuz vehicles, butare heavily modernized and modified to serve the needs of Chinese astronautsand scientists.

Like theSoyuz, Shenzhou vehicle carry propulsion, orbital and reentry modules, thelatter of which is the only component to return to Earth. But unlike Soyuzvehicles, Shenzhou orbital modules carry their own engines and solar panels andcan remain in orbit for months at a time. The orbitalmodule for Shenzhou5 - China's first manned spaceflight - also circled Earth for severalmonths.

Accordingto CCTV reports, the Shenzhou 6 orbital module - like its predecessors - will flythrough space to perform a series of experiments.

"This is adifferent craft than the Soyuz, and it has a different order of capability," DeanCheng, a China space specialist with the CNA Corp. in Arlington,Virginia, told SPACE.com ofthe orbital module's flight. "It would be interesting to see what [they] aretesting out. Is it science experiments, is it observations, or are they seeinghow long the batteries last?"

China hastested a series of orbital modules during its Shenzhou spaceflights culminatingwith the first experimentsconducted by astronauts inside the compartment during Shenzhou 6.

"I thinkthe technical comparison has borne that they did take a proven design and madeit their own, they're very upfront about it," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chairof National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RhodeIsland, of the shared lineage between Shenzhou and Soyuz spacecraft in anearlier interview. "A Hummer and Volkswagen Bug have different designs, butthey share basic parameters. They all have four wheels."

Chinesespace officials have said their efforts are leading toward an eventual mannedspace station, as well as an unmanned Moon probe set for a 2010 launch.

"We plan toconduct a spacewalk around 2007; and launch target fliers and manage rendezvousand docking in orbit by 2009-2012," said Tang Xianming, director of the China MannedSpace Engineering Office, said during a post-flight press conference accordingto China Daily. "The final stage is to set up a permanent space lab andbuild a space engineering system."

Thepotential to link up with orbital modules on future flights could provide Chinawith an ad-hoc space station as it pushes toward building larger orbitingstructures, space experts said.

"It's asmall space station on the cheap," Johnson-Freese said.

Accordingto state media and Associated Press reports,Tang said China's Shenzhou 6 spaceflight cost about $110 million (900 millionyuan) out of the $2.3 billion (19 billion yuan) the country has spent to dateon its manned spaceflight program.

In thepublic eye

Cheng saidthat China's publicity with the Shenzhou 6 flight - which was broadcast liveduring launchand landing - shows an understanding of national interest in its spaceflightefforts. Spaceflight officials unveiled a few of the novelty items - includingfoodstuffs, student paintings and national and Olympic flags - that flew intoorbit aboard the spacecraft.

"There is ahealthy appetite for space-related items," Cheng said, adding that the detailsof many of Shenzhou 6's orbital module experiments are likely still remain tobe released. "I think the Chinese are feeling their way out on how to be moreopen."

Instead ofthe days of silencethat followed the Shenzhou 5 flight, which carried astronaut Yang Liwei on a14-orbit, 21 1/2 -hour flight, the Shenzhou 6 crew were prominently featured onChinese 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 upwith a lot of sleep later," Nie said on CCTV one day after landing. "We wantedto accumulate as much information and experience as possible."

Nie said hefelt the entire flight was a success and that sleep came easier in the later halfof the spaceflight and in the initial days in orbit, CCTV reported.

"Bothof us felt great upon touchdown," Fei said in the CCTV interview. "We remainedentirely conscious throughout the landing. We had great close coordination incutting the parachute. We felt the landing was perfect."

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