REPORTING FROM BEIJING -- China successfully docked two unmanned spacecraft in orbit above the Earth Thursday as the country moves ahead with its plans to launch a manned space station by 2022.
The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft docked with the Tiangong 1 space lab module, which was already in orbit. The two craft will orbit the Earth together for 12 days before another docking is attempted, China Daily reported, citing a Chinese space program spokeswoman. Shenzhou 8 will return to Earth on Nov. 17.
China has become the third nation to complete an unmanned docking, after Russia and the United States.
Shenzhou 8, which means “divine craft” in Chinese and is a reference to a literary name for China, was the latest step in China’s three-part program of space exploration. The first involved achieving manned spaceflight, which was completed in 2003, making China the third country to independently send a person into orbit.
The stage currently underway includes spacewalks and remote docking procedures. Today’s successful docking and Zhai Zhigang’s 2008 spacewalk are some of the milestones. In the third phase, China plans to launch a space station between 2020 and 2022.
China has planned two more docking missions for next year, one of them manned.
China’s space program has been entirely indigenously developed, by both state-owned and private companies. Early attempts to participate in international projects like the 16-nation International Space Station were rebuffed over U.S. concerns that China’s space program has close military ties.
While the People’s Liberation Army runs the manned spaceflight program, it’s difficult to determine to what extent the program has military goals.
“The space program is not very transparent at all,” said Morris Jones, a space analyst based in Sydney, Australia. “The Chinese have an obsession with secrecy when it comes to their space program.”
The Tiangong 1, the module already in orbit that Shenzhou 8 docked with, has two large telescopes directed at the Earth that can photograph anything on the surface. These are probably used for some military purposes, Jones said.
Experts agree that China’s current space technology is about the level of the U.S. in the 1960s-era Gemini program. While not exceeding U.S. space technology, China does have the political will and money to support an ambitious space program, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. in September.
Despite the lag in technology, China advances more with each launch.
“Within only seven or eight years, China's space experts have completed what their foreign counterparts took three to four decades to achieve,” said Wang Yongzhi, chief designer of previous Shenzhou craft, according to the New China News Agency.
Chinese President Hu Jintao commended the docking in a message while on his way to the G20 summit in Cannes, France. Premier Wen Jiabao and other officials watched the docking procedure from Beijing, the New China News Agency reported.