China launches second test flight of spacecraft

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The Independent Online

An unmanned Chinese spacecraft rocketed into orbit early today in the second test flight of a vessel intended to one day carry astronauts and make China the third nation capable of manned space travel.

An unmanned Chinese spacecraft rocketed into orbit early today in the second test flight of a vessel intended to one day carry astronauts and make China the third nation capable of manned space travel.

A Long March rocket blasted off from the Gobi desert launch centre at 1:00 a.m. (1700 GMT Tuesday) and put the Shenzhou II spacecraft into orbit 10 minutes later, state media reported.

The spacecraft would return "in a few days" after conducting experiments in physics and astronomy and on space's effects on life forms, the Xinhua News Agency said. Among the test subjects, newspapers said, were cell and tissue samples from 87 animals, plants and micro-organisms.

China has placed great prestige on and poured an undisclosed amount of resources into its secretive 31-year-old space program. If successful, the program will lift China alongside the United States and Russia into the exclusive club of space travel.

"An important step in realizing manned spaceflight," the People's Daily said in a headline below a picture of the Long March 2-F rocket blasting off from the Jiuquan launch center. Newspapers praised the rocket and capsule as triumphs of domestic engineering and President Jiang Zemin sent a congratulatory telegram.

"I hope you will work persistently and unremittingly to achieve even greater victory," Jiang said in his message to the program's civilian and military personnel.

A smooth flight and safe return means China could be ready to put astronauts aloft in 18 to 24 months, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a Hawaii-based analyst and one of the few foreign experts on the Chinese space program.

Xinhua, quoting unidentified Chinese aerospace sources, said China needs three or four more test flights before it can send a human into space. China also has ambitious plans to launch largely automated space stations followed by bigger stations able "to house astronauts for long periods of time," Xinhua said without providing a timeframe.

Today's flight was the second unmanned test of the Shenzhou family of space capsules in less than 14 months. In the first test, in November 1999, the Shenzhou, or "sacred vessel," orbited the earth for 21 hours before landing on the grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia region.

Unlike the first flight, which was disclosed only after the craft safely touched down, China announced the second launching shortly after it occurred and provided more information about the craft and rocket.

"It's a sign of confidence and a sign of pride," said James Oberg, a veteran analyst of the US and foreign space programs. He watched the Shenzhou arc across the clear eastern sky at sunset near his home in Houston, Texas.

Xinhua said the second Shenzhou capsule was an improvement over its predecessor, its structure and technology "basically identical to a manned space aircraft." The Long March rocket too featured upgraded troubleshooting and safety systems, Xinhua said.

The government, however, has been circumspect about when it will send up astronauts - or what some Chinese have dubbed "taikonauts" from the Chinese word for space. Program scientists and officials quoted by state media in recent months have suggested it could come within the next five years.

"China will test several unmanned spacecraft, and when its manned spaceflight technology is mature, it will launch people into space," the English-language China Daily quoted an unidentified spokesman from the China Manned Space Program Office as saying.

The Shenzhou's flight was being tracked and controlled from centers in Beijing, western Xi'an city and an undisclosed number of surveying ships at sea, the reports said. China Daily said that early information from the tracking networks indicated the rocket and spacecraft "performed well."

Despite the fanfare given to the Shenzhou launching, China has released little information publicly about the space program, code-named Project 921. In a sign of the program's military backing, Jiang addressed his congratulatory telegram to two top generals.

Its military origins and lingering controversies over China's suspected reapplication of Western space technology to develop weapons have made the Chinese space program a largely domestic affair and partly kept China out of the international space station program.

"The Chinese especially now are so shunned, if you will, that they have been forced to go it alone probably more than they would like to," said Johnson-Freese.

In a sign of China's waning interest, Oberg noted that the path of today's launch was too low to place a future Shenzhou vessel on track to dock with the international space station.