China readies manned space station mission

China has announced plans for its first manned space docking, and says it will launch the mission as early as this month.

According to state news agency Xinhua, the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and its Long March 2F carrier rocket have already been moved to the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China. Takeoff could be as soon as next week.

“The Shenzhou-9 will perform our country’s first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the manned space program, told Xinhua.

“It means China’s spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs. This will be a significant step in China’s manned space flight history.”

The launch means China will become only the third nation to perform a manned docking, after the US and Russia. It’s the next step in the country’s ambitious plan for a permanent 60-tonne space station by 2020. There’s no word on how long the mission is likely to last.

According to the reports, three astronauts – one of whom may be a woman – will rendezvous with the Tiangong-1 module currently orbiting the Earth. They will stay there for a short time to conduct a series of unspecified experiments.

One astronaut, though, will remain inside the spaceship in case of an emergency.

China’s already successfully carried out two space dockings last November. Its first human spaceflight took place in 2003, with its first spacewalk five years later.