China’s Shenzhou 8 unmanned spacecraft landed in Mongolia on Nov. 17 to complete a flawless auto rendezvous and docking mission with the larger unmanned Tiangong 1 module.
The Shenzhou 8 reentry module carried a sophisticated German cell biology experiment back from space and special technicians were at the landing site to remove it for safe processing of the zero-8 results.
The Chinese made no mention of the Shenzhou 8 orbital module which is always left in space as a free flying satellite with its own batteries and propulsion capability. It could just as easily been left on the Tiangong 1, no mention has been made of that option.
If flying solo which is more likely, it could be on a PLA reconnaissance mission given the silence surrounding this major capability.
Shenzhou 8 made an initial rendezvous then docking to set up for 12 days of docked operations between the two vehicles.
On Nov. 14, at about 200 mi. altitude and two days before separating for reentry, Shenzhou 8 successfully undocked from the Tiangong 1 module and within 8 min. moved back by 450 ft.
Ground controllers at the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center (BACC) waited for precise orbital lighting conditions, then in daylight started Shenzhou 8’s approach back toward the Tiangong module for a redocking approach in daylight but with final docking in shade.
This was to test performance of the optical and radar tracking systems on board in harsh sunlight compared the initial docking in total darkness when there is less interference. Shenzhou was launched Nov. 1 and made its initial rendezvous and docking Nov. 3. The redocking maneuver was done Nov. 14 and the return to Earth was Nov. 17.
Another two docking missions with Tiangong-1 have been planned next year, and at least one will be manned. The Chinese space program is aiming for a fully operational space laboratory by 2016 and a 60-ton permanent space station by 2020.
Chinese docking engineer Tao Jianzhong said that “before the launch of Shenzhou 8 ground simulation rigs had conducted 1,101 dockings and 647 separations and the first docking precisely fit into our simulation plan,” Tao said.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, congratulated the staff at the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center. The Center is at the head of a very active space program, yet virtually no western visitors have been allowed in since it was built 10 years ago.
The Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft will return to Earth Thursday evening following China’s first space docking procedure with space lab module Tiangong-1.
Shenzhou-8 touched down around 7 p.m. Beijing time at a landing site located in Siziwang Banner (county) in north China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
The landing site has been on alert since the spacecraft was launched into orbit. The area in which the craft may land is 15 times larger than the landing zones used in previous missions, making it more difficult to retrieve the craft, said Zhang Haidong, commander-in-chief of landing operations for China’s manned space program.
Zhang said the task of retrieving the Shenzhou-8 will be “tremendous,” despite the fact that the craft is unmanned. The craft has been in space for 17 days, much longer than China’s previous missions, Zhang said.
“All of these requirements have made our workload heavier than before,” Zhang said.
A search and recovery team has been organized for the return of the spacecraft, according to Zhang, adding that the craft should be retrieved within two and a half hours of landing. The search and recovery team used four helicopters equipped with receivers designed to detect signals from the craft, Zhang said.
One of those helicopters returned an infrared image of spacecraft (below) on its parachute descending. The descent module glowed brightly with the heat of reentry still evident.
After reaching the craft, the recovery team conducted a series of inspections and collected data from the vessel. Biological cells and Incubators inside the craft were handled delicately and sent back to Beijing promptly, as they contain biological experiments jointly conducted by Chinese and German scientists.