China's First Docking in Space with Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong 1 space module

Shenzhou 8 is an unmanned spacecraft launched on November 1 in China, by a modified Long March 2F (CZ-2F) rocket which lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

The Shenzhou 8 spacecraft was remotely docked with the Tiangong 1 space module (launched on 29 September 2011). This unmanned dockingóChina's firstówill be followed in 2012 with the manned Shenzhou 9 mission, which will perform a manned docking (also China's first) with the Tiangong 1 module. Only the Soviet Union (Russia) and the European Space Agency had achieved automatic rendezvous and docking prior to China's accomplishment.

The landmark rendezvous and docking was carried live by state run CCTV for all the world to watch. The impressive 2 hour long TV broadcast showed simultaneous and breathtaking camera videos from both the unpiloted Shenzhou-8 capsule and the Tiangong-1 space station module as they viewed one another in the cameras field of view and slowly approached together with the lovely Earth as a backdrop.

Mission controllers carefully monitored all spacecraft systems on both Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 as they sped closer at about 20 cm/sec and stopped at several parking points along the way (400 m, 140 m, 30 m) to confirm everything was nominal.

Chinese engineers and on board systems precisely guided the two spaceships and watched for any deviations. In case of any failures they had the capability to radio the vehicles to separate. But no deviations occurred and the autonomous docking proceeded to completion.

The two vehicles will remain docked for 12 days, then unhook and back off about 150 meters and then conduct another practice docking. The second practice docking is being done to gain more expertise and confidence and will be carried out under different conditions and in daylight.

The combined Shenzhou-8/Tiangong-1 orbiting complex weighs about 16 tons, some 8 tons each. Tiangong-1 is 10.4 m in length and 3.3. m in diameter. Shenzhou 8 is 9.2 m in length.