Space docking marks new milestone for China's stellar ambitions

Scientists monitor the docking at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the northwestern province of Gansu on November 3.

Story highlights

  • Shenzhou-8 joined up with the 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 343 kilometers above Earth
  • The successful experiment is an important step in China's plan to build a space station
  • Shenzhou-8 scheduled to return to Earth on November 17, with Tiangong-1 remains in orbit
China's unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou-8 successfully docked with the lab module Tiangong-1 early Thursday, another milestone in Beijing's plan to build a space station.
Shenzhou-8 joined up with the 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 343 kilometers (213 miles) above Earth, according to Wu Ping, spokesperson with the China Manned Space Engineering Project.
"The equipment works well and all the in-orbit experiments are progressing well," she said.
President Hu Jintao, currently in Europe at the G-20 summit, praised the nation's first space docking, according to Xinhua news agency.
"Breakthroughs in and acquisition of space docking technologies are vital to the three-phase development strategy of our manned space program," he said.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao watched the docking at Beijing's Aerospace Control Center along with other top communist party officials, Xinhua said.
Shenzhou-8 blasted off on November 1 from a launch facility in the Gobi Desert in northwest China -- one month after the first space laboratory module Tiangong-1 was launched into space.
According to Wu, the two modules will fly together for 12 days before conducting another docking test. The docked spacecraft will then fly for two more days before separating from each other.
Shenzhou-8 is scheduled to return to Earth on November 17, while Tiangong-1 will remain in space to wait for the next docking test.
"Achieving the space rendezvous and docking is another historic technical breakthrough for China's manned spacecraft project," said Wu.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, the first stage in a "three-step" strategy to develop its manned engineering project. The launch of the Tiangong-1 lab module is the second step. If successful, it will be followed by the last phase: to build a permanent space lab that will allow astronauts to conduct long-term space experiments.
According to Xinhua, Beijing hopes to build a space station by around 2020.
There will be two more docking tests with Tiangong-1 in 2012, with at least one carrying astronauts, according to officials.