Other name: SZ-9. Type: Manned spaceflight. Crew size: 3. Programme: Project 921-II. Agency: CMSA. Spacecraft family: Shenzhou. Orbit: LEO. Launch site: Jiuquan. Launch complex: Pad 921 (SLS1). Launch vehicle: CZ-2F (Y9). Launch date: 2012-06-16. Lift-off time: 18:37:24 CST. Landing: 2012-06-29 10:03 CST. Duration: 12 days 15 hours 26 minutes. Orbits: 200.
Shenzhou 9 was the ninth flight mission of the Shenzhou spacecraft, and the fourth crewed mission of China’s manned space programme (Project 921). The objective of the mission was to perfect the orbital rendezvous docking technique, using both automated and manual docking methods. The crew of three astronauts, including China’s first female astronaut Liu Yang, also spent nearly 10 days onboard the Tiangong 1 space module to experience orbital living and working.
The Shenzhou 9 mission achieved a number of ‘Firsts’ in the history of China’s manned space programme, including the longest mission duration for a crewed flight, the first rendezvous docking with crew onboard the Shenzhou vehicle, the first manual docking, the first Chinese woman in space, and the first two-mission astronaut (Jing Haipeng, who previously flew in the Shenzhou 7 mission).
Although it had been long speculated that the crew of Shenzhou 9 would include China’s first female astronauts, identities of the crew were kept secret until the final week of the launch preparation. The Shenzhou 9 mission had two crew teams. The prime crew, which flew in the mission, consisted of Jin Haipeng as the Mission Commander, Liu Wang as the Pilot, and female astronaut Liu Yang as the Flight Engineer. The backup crew consisted of Nie Haisheng as the Mission Commander, Zhang Xiao-guang as the Pilot, and female astronaut Wang Yaping as the Flight Engineer.
The four male astronauts were all from the 1998 astronaut group, while the two female astronauts, both in their early thirties, were only enlisted into the astronaut corps in 2010. The commanders of the two crew teams had both flown in space before – Jing in the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008 and Nie in the Shenzhou 6 mission in 2005, while the remaining members of the two crews were all first-timers.
The crew selection process for the Shenzhou 9 mission was completed in March 2012. The two crew teams arrived at the launch centre in early June, but their identities were not revealed until Monday 11 June. The prime crew took part in a launch rehearsal on Tuesday 12 June, with the backup crew on standby. The Chinese state media publicised the names of the prime crew and their brief background on Friday, just one day ahead of the launch.
The Shenzhou 9 mission used a docking variant of the Shenzhou space capsule, the second of the three examples built in a batch production. The previous mission Shenzhou 8 was unmanned, carrying two dummies to perform an automated docking with Tiangong 1.
The docking variant inherited the basic design of the Shenzhou capsule, with a front orbital module, a re-entry capsule, and an aft service module, totalling 8,082 kg orbital mass. A docking module is attached to the front end of space vehicle’s orbital module. The docking module consisted of a docking port, radio beacons, transponders, communication antenna, UHF radar, laser rangefinder, and electro-optical tracking system. Translation thrusters were added to the spacecraft for close manoeuvring during rendezvous and docking.
Launch campaign began in early April 2012, when the Shenzhou 9 vehicle was delivered to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre for initial preparation. The CZ-2F (Y9) launcher rocket arrived at the launch centre a month later in early May. The fuelling the Shenzhou 9 was completed on 29 May. The vehicle was then mated with the launch vehicle inside the Vertical Assembly Building in the technical area. The launch vehicle and spacecraft stack was rolled out to the launch pad on 9 June.
The 72-hour countdown to launch was initiated on 13 June. The fuelling of the launch vehicle and its four strap-on boosters with over four hundred tonnes of liquid propellant was completed on 15 June.
At 15:45 CST on 16 June, the three astronauts departed from the astronaut apartment in the launch centre aboard a motorcade, after attending a brief departure ceremony. They arrived at the launch pad 20 minutes later and entered the spacecraft’s descent module at 16:24 CST.
The lift-off took place at 18:37:24 CST (10:34:24 GMT). 9 minutes and 45 seconds into the flight, the second-stage engine of the launch vehicle was shut down. The spacecraft was separated from the launch vehicle and placed into an initial parking orbit (apogee: 330 km; perigee: 200 km).
Automated Rendezvous Docking
In the first 40 hours of flight, Shenzhou 9 made five orbit elevation manoeuvres to match the orbit of the Tiangong 1 target vehicle.
Shenzhou 9 reached a position about 52 km away from Tiangong 1 in the mid-day of 18 June. The automated rendezvous and docking sequence was initiated about 140 minutes before the scheduled contact time. Under the guidance of the automated navigation suite consisting of radar, laser and optical sensors, the crew vehicle slowly closed in to Tiangong 1.
After pausing briefly at the 5 km, 400 m, 140 m and 30 m hold points, Shenzhou 9 was on final approach to Tiangong 1 at a relative velocity of 0.2 m/s. The two vehicles made the first contact at 14:07 CST. Shenzhou 9 immediately fired its four main thrusters to push the two vehicles together to establish a soft-mate. 12 locking pins on the docking interface were then closed to establish a hard-mate. Less than 8 minutes after the initial contact, the two vehicles were joined, flying at a speed of 7.8 km/s in orbit. Throughout the rendezvous and docking sequence, the astronauts onboard remained standby, ready to take over using manual docking. However, the automated docking went smoothly and human intervene was not required.
Boarding Tiangong 1
About three hours after the docking was completed, the three astronauts opened the hatches of the two spacecraft vehicles and entered Tiangong 1 via the tunnel inside the docking port. They became the first residents of the Tiangong 1 space laboratory module.
The three crew members spent the next six days living in their temporary home in orbit. During this time, they performed technical demonstrations and also conducted a number of scientific experiments. In their spare time, they could watch DVD, listen to music, exchange emails with their families on the ground, and keep fit using an exercise bike. Tiangong 1 provided two sleep stations for the crew, while the third crew member remained on duty to monitor the flight of the spacecraft complex.
A communication network consisting of 12 ground-based tracking stations, three space tracking ships, and two data relay satellites provided a global coverage, which enabled constant communications between the crew and the mission control in Beijing. The crew received instructions and reported back to the mission control via secured audio and video links. Their activities were captured on the cameras onboard both Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 9, and the images were transmitted to the ground in real-time.
Tiangong 1 was equipped with an experimental water-recycling device, which was designed to turn astronauts’ urine and vapours from breathing and sweating into drinkable water. The Shenzhou 9 crew didn’t drink the urine-turned-water, but collected some samples for tests after returning to Earth.
On Sunday 24 June, the three crew members returned inside the Re-entry Module of the Shenzhou spacecraft, donned their pressure suits, and closed the hatch between Shenzhou 9 and Tiangong 1 to get ready for the first manual docking operation. Pilot Liu Wang took the central seat with the flight control panel, while Commander Jing Haipeng sitting on his right hand side to assist.
Undocking occurred at 11:08 CST and Shenzhou 9 retreated in the automated mode to a hold point 400 m away from Tiangong 1. Shortly after, Shenzhou 9 closed in to Tiangong 1 again under auto pilot. When the Shenzhou vehicle paused at the 140 m hold point, astronaut Liu Wang switched on manual flight control at about 12:38 CST and took over the control of the spacecraft. This was the first time that the Shenzhou vehicle was actually ‘flown’ by human.
Astronaut Liu Wang controlled the flight of the Shenzhou spacecraft, keeping the cross hairs in the optical sight of the docking system perfectly aligned with the visual aid on the Tiangong 1’s docking port, while the two vehicles closed in slowly. At about 12:48 CST, initial contact and capture occurred, successfully concluding the first manual docking.
The three crew members re-entered Tiangong 1 shortly after the manual docking was completed to continue their orbital living on the station.
Under the ground command, the spacecraft complex made a 180° turn in orbit at 14:42 CST on 27 June, getting ready for the manual undocking. At around 06:00 CST on 28 June, the three crew members retreated to the Shenzhou Re-entry Module along with all experiment samples and data. The hatch between the two spacecraft vehicles was sealed at around 06:37 CST.
Shenzhou 9 undocked with Tiangong 1 at 09:22 CST. It first retreated to a hold point 140 m away from Tiangong 1 under the manual control of astronaut Liu Wang. The vehicle then switched to automated guidance mode and continued retreating to a 5 km hold point. It then repeated the automated rendezvous procedure and closed in to Tiangong 1 again until the 140 m hold point, before eventually departing for re-entry.
The re-entry sequence of Shenzhou 9 was initiated at 09:17 CST on 29 June. After jettisoning the Orbital Module, the spacecraft vehicle turned to a ‘backside-forward’ position and ignited its four main engines for the de-orbit burn. The Service Module was jettisoned at 09:37 CST.
After a short blackout in communications, the Shenzhou 9 re-entry capsule carrying the three astronauts entered the atmosphere and deployed its parachute at an altitude of 10,000 m. The capsule touched down in the Siziwang Banner Recovery Site in Inner Mongolia at 10:03 CST. Strong wind caused the capsule to land 16 km off its targeted landing spot, but the search and rescue helicopters quickly reached the landing spot.
After some initial checks, the three astronauts exited the capsule at about 11:20 CST under the assistance of rescue crew and medical staff. They were then airlifted by a helicopter to a nearby airport, where they boarded an air force passenger jet heading for Beijing.