News & Current Affairs

September 26, 2008

China astronauts braced for walk

China astronauts braced for walk

The spacecraft is now in a stable, circular orbit

China’s three astronauts have spent their first day in orbit preparing for the mission’s spacewalk.

A 42-year-old fighter pilot, Zhai Zhigang, is due to carry out the 20-minute manoeuvre at 1630 Beijing Time (0830 GMT) on Saturday.

It will be the first time Chinese yuhangyuan (astronauts) have ventured outside their spacecraft.

Their Shenzhou VII capsule soared into orbit on a Long March II-F rocket from Jiuquan spaceport in north-west China.

The rocket put the Shenzhou capsule in a near-circular orbit more than 300km above the Earth.

Mr Zhai is joined on the mission by two other “yuhangyuan” – Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng.

The astronauts have been training in a water tank

Zhang Jianqi, one of the chief engineers for China’s space programme, said keeping three men in the spacecraft, and then sending one outside, would be a “big test”.

“This is a big technological leap,” he told state-run news agency Xinhua.

“The risks are quite high. Sending up three astronauts is a jump both in quantity and quality.”

When Mr Zhai carries out his extra-vehicular activity (EVA), he is expected to wear a Chinese-made spacesuit thought to have cost between £5m and £20m ($10m-$40m).

1958: Base for spaceflights built at Jiuquan, in Gobi desert
April 1970: China launches its first satellite into space
1990-2002: Shenzhou I-IV are launched to develop systems
Oct 2003: The first manned space mission launches on Shenzhou V
Oct 2005: The Shenzhou VI mission takes two men into space
Oct 2007: Chang’e-1 orbiter sent on unmanned mission to the Moon

The yuhanguan will be tethered to the capsule with a cable that provides him with life support and a communications link with the spacecraft.

His back-up, Mr Liu, will monitor the activity, presumably to reel the spacewalker back inside if there is an emergency.

Mr Zhai will retrieve an externally mounted experiment and oversee the release of a satellite.

During their 68 hours in orbit, the astronauts will be able to enjoy an unprecedented choice of food. The menu includes spicy chicken with peanuts, shrimps and dry fruits.

“We have tried to make them taste like stir-fried dishes they have on Earth,” Chen Bin, who is in charge of food for the astronauts, told state-run news agency Xinhua.

At the end of the mission, the Shenzhou re-entry capsule will target a landing in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

China became only the third nation after the United States and Russia to independently put a man in space when Yang Liwei, another fighter pilot, went into orbit on the Shenzhou V mission in October 2003.

Two years later, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng completed a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI.

According to the Associated Press, Xinhua posted an article on its website prior to the lift-off that was written as if Shenzhou VII had already been launched into space.

The article reportedly carried a date of 27 September and came complete with a dialogue between the astronauts.

Chinese media report that this latest mission is the “most critical step” in the country’s “three-step” space programme.

These stages are: sending a human into orbit, docking spacecraft together to form a small laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

The Shenzhou VIII and IX missions are expected to help set up a space laboratory complex in 2010.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

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September 8, 2008

China sets dates for space launch

China sets dates for space launch

Shenzhou VI launches in 2005

China has already launched two manned flights

China will launch its third manned space mission in late September, state-run news agency Xinhua reports.

The Shenzhou VII flight will feature China’s first ever space walk, which will be broadcast live with cameras inside and outside the spacecraft.

Three “yuhangyuan” (astronauts) will blast off on a Long-March II-F rocket sometime between 25 and 30 September.

Previous reports in state media had put the launch in October, possibly during the National Day holiday.

In 2003, China became only the third country in the world to send a human into orbit. It followed with a two-man mission in 2005.

The spacecraft will be launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the country’s north-western Gansu province.

Technically demanding

Technicians have been busily checking the readiness of the spacecraft, which will carry the crew into orbit on a mission lasting up to five days.

This flight will be more technically demanding than the last.

Performer in space suit during Olympics opening ceremony (Getty)

China highlighted its space successes during the Beijing Olympics

For the spacewalk, two crew members will go into the spacecraft’s vacuum module. One yuhangyuan will carry out the spacewalk; the other is there to monitor the activity and assist in case of an emergency.Two types of spacesuits – one made in China, the other from Russia – will be carried up on the flight.

It is unclear why China has opted for two different types of spacesuit.

Spaceflight analyst Dr Morris Jones commented that China might want to test the suits against each other. Alternatively, he said, it might not be ready or willing to fly a mission exclusively with its own suits.

The crew members, whose identities have not been released, have been training in a water tank to get used to weightlessness and to study procedures for the flight.

Bad vibrations

The Shenzhou spacecraft closely resembles the Russian Soyuz capsules, but is substantially larger. Unlike the Soyuz, it has an orbital module that is equipped with its own propulsion, allowing autonomous flight.

Testing of the spacecraft and the Long-March II-F rocket which will loft it into orbit is now complete, a Chinese space official told Xinhua.

Engineers have reportedly made over 30 technical improvements to the new rocket.

“There were some rocket vibrations after it took off which sometimes made our astronauts experience physical discomfort,” Jin Muchun, the Long-March II-F’s chief designer, told the state-owned television channel CCTV9 in July.

“So we have been trying to eliminate the vibrations by changing the frequency of the engine and the electric circuit of the rocket.”

According to reports, a small satellite will also be launched during the mission.

China launched an unmanned Moon probe last year about one month after rival Japan blasted its own lunar orbiter into space.

In July, Dr Michael Griffin, the head of the US space agency (Nasa), told News that China was capable of sending a manned mission to the Moon in the next decade, if it so wished.

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