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Module docking planned as space program picks up pace

CHINA plans to launch an unmanned space module into orbit as early as the end of 2010.

It is expected to meet with another unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou VIII, which is scheduled to be launched in early 2011 and would be the country's first space docking.

A spokesman with China's space program said yesterday that scientists on the ground would control the space docking between the orbiter and the unmanned spaceship.

The module, named Tiangong I, is designed to provide a "safe room" for Chinese astronauts to live and conduct scientific research in zero gravity. Weighing about 8.5 tons, Tiangong I would be able to perform long-term unattended operation, an essential step toward building a space station.

A prototype of the module is believed to be almost completed and scientists have started to upgrade and renovate ground service equipment for the unmanned space module.

After successfully sending spacecraft Shenzhou V, piloted by the country's first taikonaut (a Chinese term for astronaut) in 2003, China has sped up its program and aims to run its own space station.

Chinese scientists began prototype research on the space docking in 2007.

The priority for this year is to assemble prototypes of Tiangong I, Shenzhou VIII and their carrier rocket. Scientists also plan to build a new Long March 2F, which was used to propel three astronauts in the Shenzhou VII mission last year.

The space program, carried out by the People's Liberation Army's General Armament Department, also aims to finish experiments on coordination of different systems of the Tiangong I mission this year.

Space docking technology has been widely recognized as one of the most sophisticated space skills as it requires precise controlling of two high-speed spacecraft which meet and dock in space.

China has already test launched unmanned space orbiters. Before the Shenzhou V mission, in which Yang Liwei made China the world's third country to master manned spaceflight, four other unmanned experimental spaceships had been tested.

China achieved a major leap in its space activity in the manned Shenzhou VII mission last year when Zhai Zhigang made the nation's first spacewalk.


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