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'Genuine manned tool' readied for orbital coupling

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China is gearing up for its first manned space docking mission, which will attempt to latch onto the Tiangong-1 space laboratory in mid-June.

The Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft will blast off sometime this month to try to berth with the Heavenly Palace – the first module of China’s own space station.

"The Shenzhou-9 will perform our country's first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module," Zhou Jianping, chief designer of the manned space program, said, according to national news agency Xinhua.

"It means China's spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs. This will be a significant step in China's manned space flight history.”

The Shenzhou-9 and its strapped-on rocket, the Long March-2F, have already been moved onto the launch platform at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, where boffins will carry out the final tests of the craft, its booster, astronauts and ground systems.

There will be three astronauts aboard for the historical mission, one of whom is expected to come from the first batch of female taikonauts, chosen for Shenzhou-9 because of “their excellent flight skills and psychological quality”.

Their destination, Tiangong-1 or Heavenly Palace, is a space lab that’s been in orbit since September last year. The lab has already managed to couple with Shenzhou-8, an unmanned craft, in November. ®

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