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China's spaceship docks with orbiting lab


An artistic illustration of China's first space station module Tiangong-1. Photo: China Manned Space Engineering Office.

BEIJING (PTI): Three Chinese astronauts, on the country's longest manned space mission, on Thursday successfully entered the experimental Spacelab orbiting the Earth amidst fears that moisture and microbes left from previous missions may have grown and become hazardous for their health.

The astronauts Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and the second woman Chinese woman astronaut Wang Yaping opened the hatch of Tiangong-1 and successfully completed an automated docking procedure with the orbiting Tiangong-1, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

"Astronauts of Shenzhou-10 spacecraft entered Tiangong-1, the space module today", the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre said two days after the launch of the country's fifth manned space mission.

The Shenzhou-10 became the fifth spacecraft that docked with the Tiangong-1, which was sent into space in 2011 and entered the orbit in late May for the docking mission.

The experimental module was a prelude to China's efforts to construct a Spacelab of its own by 2020 on the lines of erstwhile international space station 'Mir'.

Meanwhile, some experts expressed their apprehensions about unknown risks as the module is orbiting the earth for over 600 days.

Some components on the Tiangong-1, which were designed to function for only two years, may not be in an optimal state, and experts worry that there could be unknown risks that the moisture and microbes left from previous missions might have grown and become hazardous, state-run Global Times daily reported.

"Those are also the risks astronauts will very likely be facing if we have a real space lab," Hu Haifeng, a designer with the China Aerospace and Technology Corporation who participated in the design of the Shenzhou-7 rocket carrier system, told the daily. This is another opportunity for China to prepare for a real space station, Hu said.

China is eyeing to join a select club of countries which have carried out more than one manned space missions. At present, the US and Russia are the other two nations to send independently maintained space stations into orbit.

The space mission is a source of huge national pride for the communist nation, reflecting its ambition to be among the world's leading powers. This is China's fifth manned mission and would last a fortnight compared to last year's 13 days.

A similar mission last year experimented with both automatic and manual docking procedures, Hu said, adding the present team too would carry out the same procedures to master the technologies.

"Compared with China's previous nine Shenzhou spacecraft missions, which saw technological improvements every time, this one is equipped with a series of stable technologies for transporting astronauts and supplies to orbit module Tiangong-1," Song Zhongping, a military affairs expert, told the Times.

The Shenzhou-10 inherited most of the technologies of Shenzhou-9.

"Not only the technologies but also the types and procedures of missions that astronauts should carry out will be settled after this mission, which is seen as a final test for basic technologies like docking," Song said.

Once the technologies are proven effective, many types of equipment needed for the spacecraft will be ready for small-scale production that would accelerate future spacecraft tests, he noted.

The three astronauts celebrated the traditional Dragon Boat festival in space on Thursday inside the spacecraft.

Apart from tests and observations, Wang, second female Chinese astronaut after Liu Yang, will be giving a lecture to middle and elementary school students for the first time, explaining motion in a microgravity environment.

"This is the first time we can have such an activity in the module. It shows that astronauts can perform more complicated tasks in the module and that we are confident in our technologies," Hu said adding communication with Earth from space could raise people's interest in science and space exploration.

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