China all set to launch manned space flight

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM Oct. 13. China is days away from sending its first astronaut into space, becoming the third nation after Russia and the United States to have the capability for manned spaceflights. The Long March 2F rocket, carrying the Shenzhou (SZ) spacecraft, is expected lift-off from the Jiuquan space centre in the Gobi desert between October15 and 17.

As yet, China has not revealed the identity of its first astronaut. A report in the People's Daily said that three astronauts have been short-listed. China has trained 14 astronauts, all experienced fighter pilots, but their identities have been kept a secret.

The Shenzhou spacecraft was flown unmanned four times between 1999 and 2002. The launches took place at night to aid visual tracking during lift-off and the re-entry capsule's return. But for the manned mission, the intention is to have the launch and the re-entry during daytime.

The official Chinese Xinhua news agency, quoting a senior official, has confirmed the date of the launch. Many senior Chinese figures, who want to be present at the launch, are currently attending a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which ends on October 14.

Press reports say the launch would be telecast live, an indication of China's confidence in the mission, and that senior Chinese leaders would speak to the astronaut while he is in orbit.

One agency report quoted a Chinese newspaper as saying that the launch would be at 9 a.m. Beijing time.

Phillip Clark, a British expert on the Chinese space programme, has estimated that the launch could happen between 10 a.m. and 11.30 a.m. Beijing time (7.30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Indian time).

After a mission lasting about 21 hours, China's first astronaut should be landing the next day in Inner Mongolia between 7.30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Beijing time (5 a.m. to 6.30 a.m. Indian time).

According to Xinhua, the SZ-5 spacecraft will initially be in an oval orbit, 200 km by 350 km. Then, it would move to a circular orbit at an altitude of 343 km, essentially a mission profile similar to that in the unmanned SZ-3 and SZ-4 flights. Mr. Clark pointed out that this manoeuvre places the spacecraft in position for a rendezvous or a docking mission with a second spacecraft launched from Jiuquan. Such docking and Chinese space walks are expected to occur during subsequent missions.

Although modelled on Russia's Soyuz capsule, the Shenzhou (SZ) is based entirely on Chinese designs and equipment. Like the Soyuz, the Shenzhou has three modules. The orbital module holds experiments and provides the living space for astronauts. Behind this is the re-entry capsule, which can seat up to three astronauts at lift-off and during re-entry. At the rear, is the service module, with instrumentation, another set of solar panels and the spacecraft's main propulsion system.

Unlike its Soyuz equivalent, Shenzhou's orbital modules are equipped with their own solar arrays and propulsion systems. In the last three unmanned missions, the SZ orbital modules have carried out independent manoeuvres and remained in space for six months after the re-entry capsule returned to Earth.

The SZ-5's orbital module is said to be equipped with imaging camera having a ground resolution of 1.6 metres. China has long-term plans for a space station and even human exploration and colonisation of the Moon.

"The next footsteps on the Moon could be Chinese," predicts Mr. Clark.

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