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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
China took 'Russian space lessons'
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

The Shenzhou system that has taken China's first astronaut into space looks very similar to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Soyuz, Nasa
Space park: Soyuz and the shuttle attached to the space station. Shenzhou next?
It is clear that the Chinese have learned from the Russian experience. Curiously, the Russians themselves based their Soyuz on American designs.

But Shenzhou is no straightforward Soyuz copy. China has designed and constructed many key systems on its own.

It has been reported that thousands of engineers and hundreds of institutions have been involved in the "Divine Ship" project.

In parts

The result is that, in some ways, Shenzhou is technologically superior to the Soyuz.

Shenzhou consists of three modules with three distinct roles. The crew ride in the central unit - the command module.

In front of the command module is a cylindrical pressurised unit (called the orbital module) that will provide extra workspace for the astronauts whilst in orbit.

At the rear of the command module is the service module that holds rocket engines and power systems. This module unfurls a pair of solar power panels to generate electricity.

Long March to orbit

The impressive rocket that takes Shenzhou into space is the Chang Zheng 2F, an adaptation of the Chang Zheng 2E booster which is in turn derived from military hardware.

Its thrust puts it between the standard booster for the Soyuz and the no longer used Saturn 1B that carried several Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit.

Landing, AP
China brings its capsules back to Earth just like Soyuz
To return to Earth, Shenzhou jettisons the orbital module which may remain in orbit for a prolonged period and might form the basis for a small space station of limited capability.

Then the service module fires a small rocket to reduce the spacecraft's velocity, allowing Earth's gravity to pull it into the upper atmosphere, where friction with the air further slows it down.

After the firing, the service and command modules separate; the service module burns up in the atmosphere.

The command module has a heat shield that protects the crew during re-entry.

The landing zone is in Inner Mongolia, about 500 kilometres east of the Jiuquan Space Centre. A special unit of the Chinese army has been established to recover the crew.

Space stations

The docking system employed by Shenzhou provides a clue to its future use.

In the past, Russia and the US have used different methods of docking to link spacecraft in orbit before they agreed on a standard approach and common hardware.

It appears that the Chinese have chosen a Russian system known as APAS-89.

This system was originally developed for the Russian Mir space station. It is also used to dock US space shuttles to the International Space Station.

This leads to the intriguing possibility of a Shenzhou docking with either a space shuttle or the space station.

Country profile: China
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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