PARIS — The Chinese Shenzhou-8 capsule that was launched Oct. 31 and docked two days later with an existing module in preparation for China’s future manned space station carries 17 biological and medical experiments developed by German and Chinese researchers.
In what the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said is the first international collaboration undertaken by the China Manned Space Engineering Office, DLR and its contractor, Astrium of Friedrichshafen, Germany, built the Science and Microgravity Box, or Simbox, that houses 17 experiments.
One of the questions posed by the U.S., European and other space agencies in recent years is how far China will open its manned space program to international participation. Up to now, the effort has been viewed as of such strategic import to China that international collaboration was downplayed.
But China, which has said it plans to operate a manned space station in low Earth orbit by around 2020, is a participant in a global effort of space agencies to coordinate future space exploration efforts. Senior Chinese government space officials in recent months have said they are open to cooperation in future manned exploration efforts.
Seven German universities contributed Simbox experiments, including bacteria, plants and human cancer cells, to be exposed to a zero-gravity environment for 17 days.
The experiments will return to Earth with Shenzhou-8 after the capsule undocks from the Tiangong-1 module — in low Earth orbit since late September — and effectuates a parachute-softened landing. The capsule will be recovered by helicopters and returned to Beijing for analysis.
Financed by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, German researchers provided six experiments in addition to the Simbox facility. Simbox weighs 25 kilograms and has a volume of 34 liters. It can house up to 40 experiments.
The Oct. 31 launch of the Chinese Long March 2F rocket from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China was carried live on Chinese television. After a two-day chase, the unmanned capsule caught up with Tiangong-1 and latched onto the prototype space lab module. Ten minutes later, the docking was complete. The rendezvous and docking was China’s first and sets the stage for a manned docking in 2012.
China plans to undock Shenzhou-8 in mid-November, command the spacecraft to retreat to a distance of about 140 meters and then dock again. The second docking is scheduled to last just two days, after which Shenzhou-8 will depart for good.
Space.com senior writer Mike Wall contributed from Seattle.