The crew of the Chinese Shenzhou-9 spacecraft docked today with the Tiangong-1 mini-spacelab and the three taikonauts entered the small spacelab for the first time. China becomes only the third nation to have a manned craft rendezvous and dock with another spacecraft, behind the U.S. and Russia.
Commander Jing Haipeng led the crew into the lab, followed by Liu Wang and then later Liu Yang, China’s first female taikonaut. The Shenzhou capsule completed the docking maneuvers shortly after 0600 UTC (2 am EDT). The two spacecraft are about 343 kilometers (213 miles) above Earth. The docking was shown live on national television.
This docking was automated and monitored by China’s mission control. A manual docking by the crew will be done later in the mission.
The docking video is above.
Astronauts will live and work in the module for several days doing medical experiments along with studies of live butterflies, butterfly eggs and pupae. This first mission is just the beginning of China’s preparations for having a permanently manned space station, which they hope to have built by 2020.
The new space station will weigh about 60 tons and be about one-sixth the size of the 16-nation International Space Station, and just slightly smaller than NASA’s Skylab that was operational in the 1970s.
The 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 is designed to stay in space for at least 2 years and support crews of up to three astronauts for short duration stays. One more manned mission is planned to visit, Shenzhou 10.
China has only cooperated in a limited fashion with other nations and is excluded from the ISS, mainly due to objections from the United States.
Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with the Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy podcasts. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.