Tiangong-1 space module blasts off

Updated: 2011-09-30 07:28

By Xin Dingding (China Daily)

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Launch declared a success as space station era beckons

JIUQUAN, Gansu - China's space dream took a step closer to reality as the Tiangong-1 module blasted off into the night sky on Thursday from the Gobi Desert.

The Long March II-F T1 rocket, under the unmanned module, Tiangong-1, lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 9:16 pm as planned.

Tiangong-1 space module blasts off
Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province at 9:16 pm on Thursday, adding a high-tech sheen to National Day celebrations on Oct 1. [Photo by Su Dong/for China Daily]

Ten minutes later Tiangong-1 separated from the rocket on its way to orbit, 350 kilometers above Earth. The module deployed its two solar panels, which provide power, at 9:28 pm.

At 9:39 pm, Chang Wanquan, chief commander of the manned space program, declared the launch a success as cheers and applause echoed around the command and control center in Beijing.

President Hu Jintao and other members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee went to the center to witness the launch.

Premier Wen Jiabao watched at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center as the Long March rocket, carrying the space lab, blazed into the night sky.

The launch paves the way for China's first rendezvous and docking mission. An unmanned Shenzhou VIII spaceship will be launched in November to dock with Tiangong-1.

Two more missions are scheduled for next year and astronauts will board Tiangong-1, which can also function as a space lab.

If the mission succeeds, China will become the third country to master spacecraft rendezvous and docking technology following the then Soviet Union and the United States, experts said.


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Wu Ping, the space program's spokeswoman, said that the ability to rendezvous and dock is vital for building a space station, which China has scheduled for around 2020.

"A space station cannot be launched in one shot. The modules must be launched separately and then assembled in space," she said.

China has invested 35 billion yuan ($5.47 billion) in total on its manned space program since 1992, when it was approved, she told China Daily.

The first phase, from 1992 to 2005, accounted for 20 billion yuan. During this period, China launched six Shenzhou spaceships to set up a system transporting astronauts between Earth and space.

In the second phase, from 2005, 15 billion yuan has been spent on projects, including Shenzhou VII and the first rendezvous and docking mission, she explained.

Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program, said that the space lab and future space station provide a rare platform for conducting experiments that could lead to breakthroughs in the study of materials and biological pharmacy.

"Experiments made in the microgravity of space can lead to unexpected results," he said.

For example, gas and liquid are unable to mix on Earth, but in space they mix naturally, he said.

"The primary purpose of China's manned space station is to peacefully explore space, and through it, serve mankind," he said.

Some have questioned the participation of the military in the program. However, the military has experience in coordinating large-scale requirements that are vital for the program and their involvement reflects international norms, Ministry of National Defense spokesman Geng Yansheng said on Wednesday.

He reiterated that China is firmly opposed to the weaponization of space and the program is peaceful.

China is now in the second phase of its manned space program. The goal of the program, which has three steps, is to build a 60-ton space station around 2020.

The second phase focuses on mastering four key technologies for assembling a space station.

The first of these, extravehicular activity, was completed successfully in 2008 after Shenzhou VII was launched.

Rendezvous and docking is what is being experimented with. The third technology involves cargo spaceships ferrying supplies to a space lab. The fourth tackles problems concerning the prolonged sustaining of life on a space lab, especially recycling air and water.

Besides the manned space program, China launched two lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010. It plans an unmanned lunar landing around 2013, and returning moon samples in 2017.

Ma Liyao contributed to this story.