Space Docking Positions China to Challenge U. S. Leadership in Space

Floodlight from Shenzhou 8 along with new avionics finds its’ Tiangong target at 17,500 mph in darkness at more than 200 mi. altitude just before successful docking. Photo Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office.

China’s successful automated docking between the unmanned Shenzhou 8 active vehicle and Tiangong 1 module gives China the keys to many additional manned and unmanned operations in space.  Some of these will be military in Earth orbit while some others will fly well beyond Earth to the Moon where Chinese “Astro Miners” will plumb the Moon’s resources.

With this new capability Shenzhous can dock with Orbital modules left in space by other Shenzhous or the larger module type spacecraft like Tiangong, then build up larger docked modules like the planned 60 ton 2020 station.

In the future the Chinese can develop two and three stage lunar mission spacecraft like the Apollo Command Module -Lunar Module stack that carried 12 Americans to the lunar surface, and then enabled them to return to Earth.  All of that was made possible by rendezvous and docking hardware and software programs.  The Chinese have far more access to powerful computers to help such missions than did the U. S. in the 1960s.

The Chinese can be expected to build man tented military surveillance spacecraft like the U. S. Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) that never flew and the Soviet Almaz military stations in addition to  or as part of the 60 ton station.

And for unmanned missions,  a proven autonomous rendezvous and docking capability will enable them to undertake automated sample returns to the Moon and Mars.   Some Apollo astronauts like Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan ,  believe there will be Chinese footprints on the Moon well before mid century.

Mission Control Center in the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center displays graphs and timing displays tied to the rendezvous Photo Credit: BACC

Speaking to journalists in Ottawa Canada,  Cernan asserted “There’s no question in my mind at all that they are going to develop the capability to go to the moon and probably establish colonies there to take advantage of some of the resources that are on the moon,”
Cernan  said,   China is “eight or ten years away” from landing on the moon and when they get there they are going to literally own it because no other countries have any plans to go there. During December 1972, the now 77 year old astronaut spent more than 3 days on the lunar surface with fellow astronaut geologist Jack Schmitt.

“The Chinese have a long-term plan that’s going to leave the rest of us behind quite frankly and I’m worried about it,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Cernan said if China assumes a position of leadership in space, “it’s going to have significant negative effects on western civilization, particularly the United States for many years to come.”

Flying in darkness over territory China has declined to identify Shenzhou’s,  optical rendezvous system began providing inputs to backup the various radar and beacon systems measuring the range and range rate between the two spacecraft.

One of several television recordings taking place on board was one from the glass cockpit in the descent module showing the active instrument displays, even though no Chinese astronauts were on board. These will be useful in training for later docking missions.

Shenzhou spacecraft with docking system mounted to the nose of its orbital module is removed from thermal vacuum chamber weeks before launch. Note positioning petals on the docking hardware. They can physically force the target spacecraft into docking alignment. Photo Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

Commanded from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, the docking took place at 1:36 a.m. Beijing time as the two vehicles flew at 17,500 mph.

Shenzhou 8 made four stops spaced at 5 km, 400 meters, 140 meters and 30 meters behind Tiangong-1 during the rendezvous, so that the controllers could double check the two vessels’ positions, said Ma Yongping, deputy director of the Beijing center.

He said the docking port on the front of Shenzhou 8’s orbital module is the country’s most complicated space device so far, he said.

“The docking port has more than 10,000 small parts, including some 300 bearings and 300 gear wheels. This places high demands on the spacecraft’s control system,” he said.

Engineers have nearly 100 responses planned to cope with possible emergencies.

If all goes according to plan, the two vessels will fly as one for 12 days before separating and docking again on Nov 14. They will orbit together for two more days and separate on Nov 16. The Shenzhou 8 return capsule is set to return to Earth on Nov 17 leaving its orbital module in space.


  1. You have the best (or least bad) coverage of the docking hardware that I could find.

    Unfortunately nobody goes into a serious discussion of incompatibility/compatibility with APAS-95.

    • Alain,

      Thanks for the comment. The APAS-95 incompatability with ISS makes sense, at least perhaps from the perspective of the Chinese. After all, they don’t need ISS compatibility now that they have their own space station.

      Why that incompatibility exists…well, that’s another matter all-together.


  2. The Chinese docking system is definitely compatible with the APAS-89/95, which has been officially confirmed. BTW, the SZ-8/TG-1 rendezvous and docking used a microwave radar and a laser radar.

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