A Chinese spacecraft has carried out a manned docking with an experimental space module, the latest milestone in the country’s ambitious effort to build a space station.
The Shenzhou-9 and its three-person crew, which includes China’s first woman in space, linked with the Tiangong-1 module on Monday in a manoeuvre carried live by state television.
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Two of the taikonauts then successfully entered the module; the first time China has been able to transfer crew between two orbiting craft.
During the 13-day mission, the taikonauts will work and sleep aboard Tiangong-1, a trial module that includes an exercise bike and a video telephone booth, according to media.
‘Long way to go’
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China’s efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house taikonauts for long periods of time.
China is still far from catching up with the established space superpowers: the United States and Russia. The Tiangong-1 is a trial module, not the building block of a space station.
But the docking mission is the latest show of China’s growing prowess in space and comes while budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back US manned space launches.
The United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017, and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.
But NASA has begun investing in US firms to provide commercial spaceflight services and is spending about $3 billion a year on a new rocket and capsule to send astronauts to the moon, asteroids and eventually to Mars.
China plans an unmanned moon landing and deployment of a moon rover. Scientists have raised the possibility of sending a man to the moon, but not before 2020.