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China space station takes great leap forward

China has taken a major step towards establishing its own space station after it docked two space vehicles in orbit for the first time on 3 November.

The unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft made contact with the experimental laboratory module Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace”, at 1.36am local time.

The Shenzhou spacecraft was launched at 5.58am at Jinquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia using a Long March CZ-2F rocket. It was controlled and guided by the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Centre. Tiangong-1 was launched on 29 September.

China becomes the third country in the world after the US and Russia to master docking technology, paving the way for the country to fulfill plans to establish its own space station by 2020, around the time the International Space Station ends its lifecycle.

“The mastering of rendezvous and docking technologies will lay a key technical foundation for China’s building of space station and deep-space exploration,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s Manned Space Programme.

The mission will also see German and Chinese scientists conduct life science experiments aboard Shenzou 8. It is the first time China has carried out an international cooperation in the field of space life science. Nine experiments will be carried out by China, six by Germany and two in collaboration.

Andreas Shutz, a spokesman for the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), described the collaboration as a significant development in international space cooperation.

“Space is one of the vehicles for bringing countries together after the cold war so this is very significant for us,” he said.

“The aim of these experiments is to use microgravity for biological and medical experiments,” he added.

The experiments will be carried out with the help of a Science in Microgravity Box (SIMBOX) carried by Shenzou 8.

The China Manned Space Programme and the German Aerospace Centre signed the original cooperation agreement in May 2008.

China plans to send two further spacecraft on docking missions with the Tiangong-1 next year. One of the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft will be manned and reports in the Chinese media say that female astronauts may be used.