China Readies to Launch Space Station Crew-update
UPDATE: Dragon-in-Space, a website devoted to China's space program that it says is not affiliated with any government agencies or private organizations, reports that the Shenzhou 9 launch will take place at 10:41 GMT on June 16 and it will carry a female taikonaut. Wang Ya-ping. Bob Christy has updated his website to also indicate that June 16 is the first likely launch date, with 10:39 GMT as the launch time. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) is four hours behind GMT, so that would make it 6:41 am or 6:39 am EDT. These are not official Chinese government launch dates or times, however.
ORIGINAL STORY: China still has not put an official date on it, but Xinhua reported yesterday that the first Chinese space station crew will be launched in "mid-June" as the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its rocket were moved to the launch pad.
China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace), last September. An automated spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, tested rendezvous and docking operations with it twice in November. China said at the time it planned to launch two more missions to Tiangong-1 and at least one would involve a crew and that crew likely would include China's first female taikonaut.
China indicated months ago that the launch would be this summer, but has not been specific about the date. Bob Christy, an amatuer space observer in the United Kingdom, initially calculated June 17 as a likely launch date based on Tiangong-1's orbital maneuvers. He has refined his analysis and now assesses that the launch could take place on alternate days beginning June 14. His website, zarya.info, lists the likely launch times on June 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, and 24.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its Long March 2F rocket were moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center yesterday according to Xinhua. China still did not commit to launching a woman on the mission, insisting that the decision on crew members will not be made until closer to launch.
One of the three crew members apparently will not enter the space station, but remain in Shenzhou 9. Xinhua quoted a spokesman as having said in February that "[o]ne of the three Shenzhou-9 crew members will not board the Tiangong-1 space module lab, but will remain inside the spacecraft as a precautionary measure in case of an emergency."
Tiangong-1 is quite modest (8.5 metric tons) compared to the International Space Station (about 400 metric tons), but nevertheless occupying a space station will be a significant achievement for China if all goes well. As first space stations go, Tiangong-1 is just less than half the mass of the world's first space station, the Soviet Union's Salyut 1. Launched in 1971, it had a mass of about 18.6 metric tons. The first U.S. space station, Skylab, launched in 1973, had a mass of about 77 metric tons.
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