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Chinese 'nauts couple successfully without help of machines

Shenzhou-9 'swiftly' pulls out from Heaven, then back in

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The three Chinese astronauts currently residing in the Heavenly Palace have managed to successfully dock their ship with the Tiangong-1 manually, the first time China has tried such a thing.

Liu Wang, Jing Haipeng and Liu Yang got back into the Shenzhou-9 over the weekend, which had already berthed automatically with Tiangong-1, to try a manual docking, leaving it up to driver Liu Wang to manoeuvre it into position.

It's pretty difficult to get two big pieces of expensive equipment to gently meet at thousands of miles an hour, which is why the safer bet is to leave it up to some nifty software, but if China wants to build its space station, it will need to be able to come off autopilot as well.

Liu Weibo, who is responsible for China's astronaut system, told the national news agency Xinhua that there were three reasons the docking went so well. One was that Liu Wang had a good grasp of the docking techs and "his psychological status was sound". As well as that, he and his two helpers were in close cooperation, and of course, the "domestically made" berthing system was reliable.

"The manual docking was beautifully conducted. It was very accurate and swift," he said.

The three taikonauts backed up the Shenzhou-9 to a berth point 400m (1,312ft) away from the module and then went back in slowly. They completed the docking in just seven minutes, a few minutes faster than the time taken to complete the automatic berth, Liu said.

The astronauts are now back on board the Heavenly Palace and getting on with some scientific experiments, which will occupy their time until they manually cast off for the journey home on Friday.

China is clocking up its space firsts, and now that it's fully up on space walking, docking and all the other tricks it will need to build its space station onto the Tiangong-1, which the country is hoping to do in 2020. This trip will also mark the longest space trip for China's manned space programme.

Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, said the country had set aside around 19bn yuan ($3bn) for its space docking missions. This covers the mission of Shenzhou-9, as well as that of its precedents – Shenzhou-8 and Shenzhou-7 – and the upcoming Shenzhou-10 mission, which will happen next year. ®

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