China will send its latest unmanned space craft into orbit early in the New year as part of a stepped up space programme for 2003 that will also see the launch of up to nine satellites, official press said mentioned.
Quoting Zhang Qingwei, president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the China Daily said the ambitious plans were “hurtling China’s space programme ever closer to manned flights”.
The final touches were being put to the launch of “Shenzhou IV” or “Divine Vessel IV”, which is scheduled for around January 1, 2003 the newspaper said.
This is the most precise date given yet by Chinese space officials for the launch of the much-anticipated mission.
Compared with the previous three unmanned space capsules launched between 1999 and March this year, Shenzhou IV “represents China’s most sophisticated and fullest preparations to finalizing its goal of manned space flights,” Zhang was quoted as saying.
While Shenzhou III’s carrier rocket was equipped with a fault detecting and handling system, its successor would be further backed by a ground-based search and rescue system and reinforced by other more reliable safety measures, he said. The new craft will also be fitted with “dummy astronauts”, he said, adding however, that “no animal has ever been on board one of China’s unmanned space flights.
He declined to give a timetable but added that 14 Chinese astronauts — picked from thousands of air force pilots — have undergone training on Shenzhou craft. The country is “close to breakthroughs in technology related to spaceship docking, space walks, space labs and deep-space exploration,” Zhang said, according to the paper.
China has long held the ambition of becoming the third country in the world to stage a manned space flight after the former Soviet Union and the United States. Beijing set up its space programme in 1992 and the first experimental Shenzhou craft was launched November 20, 1999, returning to earth in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region the next day.
The Shenzhou II was launched on January 10, 2001, with the re-entry module orbiting the earth 108 times in six days, while an orbital module remained in orbit for nine months, successfully performing a series of tests.