Shenzhou-9 successfully conducts manual docking test with Tiangong-1

by Rui C. Barbosa

More than half way through their mission, the crew of Shenzhou-9 have accomplished another major flight objective, as the spacecraft successfully conducted the manual docking test with the unmanned space module Tiangong-1. The duo met up last week under automated control, prior to Sunday’s manual test.

Manual Docking Test:

Before entering Shenzhou-9, the crew prepared the Tiangong-1 module for independent flight, in the unlikely case of a problem with the manual docking, requiring an emergency return to Earth. After that, the crew entered Shenzhou-9 and dressed in their pressurised suits.

The automated separation of the two vehicles kicked off the events, lasting a few hours in total.

First, Shenzhou-9 backed to a distance of 400 meters, prior to closing back in to 140 meters, at which point the two vehicles maintained their distance.

The ground then gave their approval for the manual approach, controlled by Liu Wang, from the 140 meter point, prior to a short hold point at 30 meters. Closing in at 0.4 meters per second, the successful completion of the manual docking took place at around 4:50 UTC.

The Shenzhou-9 – now in its final leg of the mission – is scheduled to return to Earth on June 29.

The docking – and indeed most of the mission – of Shenzhou-9 with the Tiangong-1, brought back memories of the 60’s and 70’s, when groups of space sleuths tried to predict the next space step on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

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Even in 2012, the tight control of information by the Chinese space authorities meant analysts could only try to guess many of the mission details in advance, including the names of the crew, the time of launch and the program of activities on the Tiangong-1 module – a reminder of the Salyut missions.

On the day before the launch of Shenzhou-9, the schedule of events in orbit – and the objectives of the mission – were starting to leak out.

The first objective was classed as the need to validate the technology of automated rendezvous and docking, and for the first time to verify that manual rendezvous and docking could be successfully achieved.

Secondly, the taikonauts had to verify that all the systems were working properly and that the laboratory was capable of sustain human life. On entering the module, the crew had to take numerous measurements – including cabin pressure, oxygen capacity, air temperature and humidity, control of harmful gases and microbes control.

The third objective is to successfully return China’s first women taikonaut safely back to Earth.

Orbital Operations:

After the June 18 docking, the crew settled on a daily routine, adapting to live aboard Tiangong-1, where the environment inside was noted to be quite comfortable, with the temperature set around the 22 to 23 degrees Celsius mark, along with the humidity at 40 percent.

The taikonauts have been carrying out their routine medical examinations during the mission, including measuring blood pressure, body temperature and body weight – communicated to medical support specialists on the ground.

The crew’s daily work includes the carrying out of experiments and prevention work for the physiological effects of weightlessness. In order to prevent the negative effects on the body caused by the weightless environment, the crew have been exercising, using the bicycle ergometer on board the TG-1.

Other space experiments include microbiological tests and evaluation of the human biological rhythms, as well as physiological studies and experiments in the microgravity environment.

On June 19, the crew received their first e-mail from Earth. The e-mail containing photos, text and videos was sent through a special communication channel between the control center and the lab module.

Besides their nominal mission duties, the taikonauts have also been advised to have fun during the flight, using a video link to chat with the ground and their family members. The module designers also planted surprises inside the lab for the crew. According to the general director, these treasure-hunting games will also be recorded to analyze people’s ability in solving puzzles in gravity-free conditions.

On June 22, the taikonauts manually changed the attitude control for the joined spacecraft – a first for the Chinese – five days after the historical docking in orbit. The control system on Tiangong-1 was turned off by Liu Wang, prior to testing three different kinds of positioning, with Shenzhou-9 taking charge of the flight.

This was followed by the milestone manual docking on Sunday.

(Images via ChinaNews.CN and CCTV)

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