China will take its first step towards its planned landing on the Moon in mid-June when it launches the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. Shenzhou 9 will carry three taikonauts (astronauts) and will dock with the Tiangong-1 space station, which was launched in September 2011. The unmanned Shenzhou 8 module docked successfully with the space station in November 2011.
In December 2011, the Chinese government confirmed its intentions of a manned Moon mission sometime after 2020. It will spend the coming years developing satellites, new modules for the space station, lunar probes and its Beidou satellite navigation system.
The scheduled launch of Shenzhou 9 will take place on the evening of 16 June. Two possible crews have been named. These are Nie Hasheng (commander) with Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Yaping. The other possible crew is Jing Haipeng (commander) with Liu Wang and Liu Yang.
Both commanders are veterans of previous space missions. Nie Hasheng was a back-up crew member on the Shenzhou 5 and 7 flights in 2003 and 2008 and flew on Shenzhou 6 in 2005. Jing Haipeng was a member of the crew on the Shenzhou flight in 2008.
The Shenzhou 9 crew will spend two to three days manoeuvring around the space station before attempting a docking. Two of the crew will board the space station while one remains aboard Shenzhou 9 to manage unexpected issues. The rendezvous with the space station will be performed automatically but the docking will be done manually. Shenzhou 9 is expected to spend 12 to 13 days in space, with up to 10 days spent docked with Tiangong-1.
Inside the space station, the moisture created by the crew’s breathing and sweating will be collected and recycled. One devoice will convert water into oxygen while another will convert the taikonauts’ urine into water. But this water will be tested on return to Earth before it is used as potable water for future taikonauts.
The earlier Shenzhou 8 docking mission had difficulties when it was discovered that its cameras and sensors were almost facing towards the sun.
Taingong-1 is a solar-powered space station module that is 34 feet long and 11 feet wide. It weighs approximately 8.5 tons. The station has a pressurised experimental module where the crew will live and work. A second module, the resource module, holds the electrical power and propulsion mechanisms and life-support systems. The space station is tiny compared with the International Space Station (ISS), which is operated jointly by the United States and various other countries, including Russia and Japan. The ISS is as big as a football field and weighs 450 tons.