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China s Long March 2F rocket launches carrying Shenzhou-9. Credit: news.cn China's Long March 2F rocket launches carrying Shenzhou-9. Credit: news.cn

China sends astronauts to its space lab

Sen— China has launched its Shenzhou 9 spacecraft carrying three astronauts bound for Tiangong 1, its orbiting space lab.

Aboard Shenzhou 9 are two male astronauts, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, and one female astronaut Liu Yang. The mission commander is Jing Haipeng.

This is the second time in space for Jing Haipeng, who flew in space aboard the Shenzhou 7 mission. This is the first time in space for his fellow astronauts, 42 year old Liu Wang and 33 year old Liu Yang who becomes China's first female astronaut.

Chang Wanquan, Chief Commander of China's Manned Space Engineering Project announced a few minutes after launch that the Shenzhou 9 spaceship had accurately entered its orbit and called the launch a great success.

The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will dock automatically with China's orbiting space laboratory, Tiangong 1. This will be the first time a manned spacecraft has attempted to dock with the space lab. It follows the success of the unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission which docked with the orbiting outpost in November 2011.

After docking with Tiangong 1 the astronauts will enter the space lab through the docking passage and start working and living there.

Although the automatic rendez-vous procedure will be used initially, during the mission the astronauts will re-enter the spacecraft and separate from Tiangong 1 in order to attempt a manual docking procedure for the first time.

Chinese officials informed the world's media that since Shenzhou 8 some alterations had been made to the spacecraft to adapt it for human spaceflight, to improve reliability and safety.

During the mission the three astronauts will conduct scientific experiments, technological experiments, exercise and rest in Tiangong 1 target vehicle.

The astronauts are expected to live aboard the co-joined Shenzhou craft and Tiangong 1 for about two weeks. After the mission Tiangong 1 will manoeurvre to a long term operation orbit.  

The Tiangong 1 orbiting laboratory, which measures 10.5m in length, was launched from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert on September 29, 2011 and put in orbit about 350km above Earth. China plans to develop Tiangong 1 into a permanently crewed space station over the next few years.

In November 2011 China's unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft docked successfully with Tiangong 1, the first time China had joined two space vehicles together in orbit. The successful docking of the Shenzhou 8 craft prepared the way for the current manned mission. Shenzhou 8 remained docked to the space laboratory for 12 days before returning to Earth. 

The current mission is the first one to take astronauts to Tiangong 1.

China is the third state to launch astronauts into orbit, following the Soviet Union and the USA.

The current mission is China's fourth manned spaceflight in an ambitious space programme. In December 2011 China set out its space strategy for the next few years. The plans outlined state “China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”, as well as intentions for deep space exploration:  “China will conduct special project demonstration in deep-space exploration, and push forward its exploration of planets, asteroids and the sun of the solar system”.

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