Three Chinese astronauts manually docked their space capsule at an orbiting module Sunday (June 24), a major first for China's space program and the country's plans to build a large space station.
The astronauts docked their Shenzhou 9 spacecraft with the unmanned Tiangong 1 module 213 miles (343 kilometers) above Earth. It was the second orbital linkup in a week for the two spacecraft, which performed China's first automated space docking June 18.
Shenzhou 9's astronauts Liu Wang, Jing Haipeng and Liu Yang — who is China's first female astronaut — are the fourth Chinese crew to fly in space. The astronauts launched into orbit on June 16, atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's northern Gansu province.
Tiangong 1 has been in orbit since September 2011, and was part of China's first robotic docking with the unmanned Shenzhou 8 capsule in November. The Shenzhou 9 crew made their first docking with Tiangong 1 June 18, marking the first time a manned Chinese spacecraft has docked with another vehicle in orbit. [Shenzhou 9: China's 1st Manned Space Docking (Pictures)]
Earlier today, the astronauts undocked the two spacecraft and flew Shenzhou 9 about 1,300 feet (400 meters) away. They then maneuvered their capsule by hand, with Liu Wang at the helm, back into docking configuration with Tiangong 1 at 12:48 p.m. China Standard Time, or 12:48 a.m. EDT (0448 GMT).
"The success of the manual rendezvous and docking mission represents another important phase achievement of the Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1 rendezvous and docking mission," Wu Ping, spokeswoman of the China Manned Space Program, said during a press briefing following the docking. "The three astronauts will once again enter the orbiting module of Tiangong 1 to carry out scientific experiments."
The mission's docking maneuvers are a milestone in the development of China's manned space program, which flew its first astronaut in space in 2003. Tiangong 1 (which means "Heavenly Palace" in Chinese) is a prototype for China's first manned space station, which officials say will be functional by 2020.
After today's docking, the Shenzhou 9 astronauts (known as taikonauts) received a message from a group of Chinese oceanauts who are setting records not above the ground but below it.
"We wish for a great success of the manual docking and brilliant achievements in China's manned space and manned deep-sea dive causes," read a message sent by three crewmembers aboard the Chinese submersible Jiaolong, 7,015 meters (23,000 feet) beneath the Pacific Ocean in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth, state-run newspaper Xinhua reported.
The oceanaut crew set a new deep-diving record for China on June 22.
Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1 are due to stay connected for four more days, with the crew departing June 28 and landing back on Earth June 29.
- Liftoff! Launch Photos of China's Shenzhou 9 Docking Mission
- Shenzhou 9 Explained: China's 1st Female Astronaut Heads to Space Lab (Infographic)
- China Launches Crew Of Three To Tiangong 1 Space Station | Video
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