China manually docked a spacecraft and an orbiting module on Sunday for the first time, bringing the country one step closer to achieving its goal of building a space station.
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft carrying three crew, including the nation's first female astronaut, linked up with the Tiangong-1 laboratory module at 12:55 p.m. Beijing time, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. A remote-controlled, automated docking took place last week and the spacecraft was disconnected on Snday in order to repeat the maneuver manually, an event broadcast live on national television.
China is seeking to expand its space program and has goals of putting a person on the moon by 2020 as well as operating a permanent manned space station. The astronauts lived and worked in Tiangong-1 since last week's docking and returned to the lab module after today's maneuver to conduct further experiments and studies, Xinhua said.
The docking was "a complete success," Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space program, said at a briefing in Beijing today, according to a transcript on the central government's website. The breakthrough in the docking technology "lays a solid foundation for construction of the space station," she said.
China has an investment budget of 19 billion yuan ($3 billion) for the country's space-rendezvous and docking missions, Wu said. That includes the Shenzhou-9 project and the planned Shenzhou-10 manned mission next year as well as previous missions conducted by the Shenzhou-7 and Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, Wu said.
Shenzhou-9 was launched on June 16, while Tiangong-1 was put into orbit last year. The astronauts will stay in the module for another three to four days before manually maneuvering it to separate from the spacecraft and return to Earth, Wu said.
China sent its first man into space and conducted its first spacewalk decades later than the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. ended its 30-year space-shuttle program last year and now has no manned spaceflight capability.
China spent 20 billion yuan on manned space programs carried out by Shenzhou-6 and earlier projects since it started manned missions in 1992, Wu said.
As the country marked a step forward in its space exploration, it also set a new a new depth record for a manned submersible, according to a separate Xinhua report.
The Jiaolong, named after a mythical sea dragon, dropped to a depth of more than 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) below the surface of the western Pacific Ocean on Sunday, Xinhua said. The submersible reached a depth of 7,015 meters during its fourth dive into the Marianas Trench, according to the report.
The crew of three worked for almost three hours on the sea floor collecting water samples and sediments and placing markers at the bottom of the sea, Xinhua said. The submersible will return to China in mid-July, it said.