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China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts manually fly cargo ship for emergency docking test

A view from the Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft as it approaches the Tianhe module docking hub.
A view from the Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft as it approaches the Tianhe module docking hub. (Image credit: CCTV)

China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts conducted a manual rendezvous and docking test over the weekend to test emergency procedures for spacecraft visiting the Chinese space station.

The complex test involved the Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft undocking from the Tianhe core module of China's Tiangong space station. The astronauts aboard Tianhe then teleoperated Tianzhou 2, guiding it back towards the Tianhe core module and completing the rendezvous and docking procedure.

The test took about two hours and was completed at 6:55 p.m. EST Jan. 7 (2355 GMT, or 7:55 a.m. Beijing Time, Jan. 8). 

Related: The latest news about China's space program

"The astronauts in the [Tianhe] core module send control instructions to separate the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft and the core module, and then he (the astronaut) manually controlled the location and position of the entire cargo spacecraft to retreat to a certain distance forward, and dock it again until the locking is completed," Yang Sheng, general chief designer of the Tianzhou system with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told state media.

The manual docking procedure is the emergency backup plan for module dockings for building the space station. Visiting spacecraft are designed to carry out automated rendezvous and docking.

The crew also recently tested the use of Tianhe's large robotic arm for transpositioning spacecraft from one docking port to another.

China began construction of its space station in April 2021 with the launch of the Tianhe core module. Two new modules dedicated to experiments are planned to launch later this year.

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Andrew Jones

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.