China’s new 8.5 ton Tiangong-1 docking module is undergoing orbital checkout following a smooth countdown and night launch Sept. 29 at the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in the Gobi desert.
The commander of China’s manned space program Chang Wanquan pronounced the launch phase a success after an orbit 4 adjust maneuver during which Tiangong’s twin maneuvering engines changed the orbit from an elliptical 124 x 214 mi. to a 213 mi circular orbit instead.
Liftoff came at 9:16 p.m. local time on board a Long March 2F/ T-1 booster, a version of the Long March 2F/G that has more accurate guidance and a larger second stage propellant load. The 170 ft. tall rocket weighing about 1 million lb. climbed out on about 1.4 million lb. thrust from four liquid strap on engines and four first stage core vehicle engines—all based on the Chinese YF20 engine with 177,000 lbs. of thrust.
Miniature video cameras mounted on the launcher gave spectacular views during the night launch, especially those above the strap-on boosters. They showed brilliant purple and blue fire as engine tail off and separation.
The vehicle cleared the China coast south of Japan where one of China’s new space tracking ships was located. A second tracking ship was in the South Pacific and may have commanded open the tail mounted solar arrays. A third new ship was in the Atlantic off Africa and a fourth was in the Indian Ocean west of Australia. The ships complemented 9 ground based Chinese tracking and communications stations and up to 20 telemetry stations.
All of the dockings will be made in the 213 mi. orbit inclined 42 deg. to the equator like the Tiangong 1 module is flying in.
The unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft will now move into advanced processing and stacking at Jiuquan in preparation for its planned launch in October and initial unmanned docking tests in November.
It is possible that the Shenzhou 8 orbital module and the orbital modules of the manned Shenzhou 9 and 10 spacecraft could be left attached to the Tiangong when the those spacecraft back out for return to earth in the descent module.
Chinese President Hu Jintao watched the launch of Tiangong-1 at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, Mission Control for the flight.
Several other members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party , including Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Li Changchun, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and Zhou Yongkang, were also present. That is important because their support is vital to continued advancement of the Chinese space program.
This is an especially notable show of support for China’s overall space program, says Michael Sheehan an expert on Chinese affairs and Professor of International Relations at Swansea University in Wales.
The successful launch of the Tiangong-1 space station by China is an event of huge geopolitical significance, says Sheehan. “The true significance of Tiangong-1 is that it is a statement of China’s intent to achieve superpower status,” he says.
“Chinese acquisition of new technologies such as aircraft carriers, high-speed trains, anti-satellite systems and so on is not for any intrinsic value they possess, but because the Communist Party leadership [like those who attended the launch] see them as symbols that distinguish great powers from competitors, “Sheehan said.
“In this regard, what is significant about the manned space program is that only superpowers have achieved this capability, and Tiangong-1 and its successors are for China, symbolic proof that China is emerging as a 21st Century superpower. “
In that vein the Tiangong deputy chief designer Zhang Shan noted that the two large camera ports noted last week on the Earth facing mid belly of the spacecraft are for two hyperspectral imaging cameras to survey croplands for residue from pesticides, said Zhang.
That may be so, but they may have a more substantive use as military reconnaissance cameras, with film or data tapes that can be returned to Earth by visiting Shenzhou crews starting in early 2012.
The human eye can see white light in three bands, red, green and blue. Hyperspectral cameras divide the spectrum into hundreds or thousands of bands. Humans build sensors and processing systems to provide such capability for application in agriculture, mineralogy, physics, and military surveillance systems.
The idea that drives military hyperspectral surveillance is that hyperspectral scanning draws information from such a large portion of the light spectrum that any given object will have a unique spectral signature among the many bands that are scanned. The Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 used hyperspectral imaging technology while conducting the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad Pakistan, according to a recent U. S. Defense Dept. assessment of hyperspectral performance during the raid.
The bottom line is having hyperspectral cameras on board dramatically increases the military utility of the Tiangong vehicle as a high-tech surveillance platform, that will be visited to two crews that can pick up imaging products or conduct manned hyperspectral imaging.
There is also a Photonic crystal experiment on board to exploit new concepts for the use of such crystals.
Photonic crystals are composed of periodic dielectric or metallic dielectric nanostructures that affect the propagation of electromagnetic waves in the same way that a semiconductor crystal affects electron motions by defining allowed and forbidden energy bands. Essentially photonic crystals contain regularly repeating internal regions of high and low dielectric constant that can have a similar effect. The Chinese experiment will be commanded from the ground in an experiment of telepresense like that already used on the International Space Station. Shenzhou crews will later return the Photonic crystals back to Earth.