China Launches Prototype Space Station

The six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station are about to get some new orbital neighbors.

The six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station are about to get some new orbital neighbors. Three Chinese astronauts have blasted off aboard a Chinese Long March rocket.

They won't be coming aboard the international outpost, a $100 billion complex that files about 250 miles above Earth, however. China is not a member of the 15-nation partnership.

Instead, Nie Haishengm, commander of the Shenzhou-10 mission, and his two rookie crewmates will head to a Chinese-owned module called Tiangong-1, which is serving as testbed for a future operational station.

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The Chinese astronauts or "taikonauts" are due to spend 15 days in orbit, primarily to practice rendezvous and docking techniques, test technologies needed for long-term human habitation in space and conduct science experiments, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's human space program said through a translator at a webcast press conference on Monday.

The mission will be the country's fifth with people aboard. Another three-member crew visited the 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 module last June. The prototype station, whose name means "Heavenly Palace," has been orbiting since September 2011.

The capsule is expected to rendezvous and dock with Tiangong-1 twice, once manually and once automated. The technology is needed to prepare for on-orbit construction of China's follow-on station.

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"Up to now, we have only conducted three automated rendezvous and dockings and one piloted rendezvous and docking. We need more flight tests for verification," Wu Ping told reporters.

Tiangong-1 was designed to last for two years and part of the upcoming mission will be to check its condition for a possible extension, Gregory Kulacki, China program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Discovery News.

"The one thing that's going to be different for this mission is that in preparation for their space station design, which requires lugging of larger modules, they are going to do what they call a maneuver around the Tiangong-1 one, similar to what they are going to need to be able to do when they start building the space station," Kulacki said.

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NASA is banned by Congress from any contact, collaborations or partnerships with China, primarily due to concerns about technology transfer. Republican congressman Frank Wolf has been leading that charge.

"I understand Congressman Wolf's concerns, but I think his approach is counter-productive," Kulacki said.

"Banning contact between NASA and potential counterparts in China only gives greater authority to the more nationalistic elements within the Chinese space community, and it minimizes the voices of a very large internationalist constituency within the Chinese space community," he said.

"The ban really strengthens attitudes that are not conducive to better relations between the United States and China and it weakens the position of those who take a more positive attitude toward the United States," Kulacki added.

The mission launched early Tuesday from China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

In addition to Nie Haisheng, 48, who is making his second spaceflight, the crew includes Zhang Xiaoguang, 47, a former Air Force pilot, and Wang Yaping, 33, who has become the second woman from China to fly in space.

Visitors take pictures as China's Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and its carrier Long March 2-F rocket are being transferred to its launching site at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, Gansu province June 3, 2013.