Image: Mission Control in Beijing
Wang Jianmin  /  AP
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, staff members monitor the process of re-docking of China's Shenzhou 8 unmanned spacecraft with the Tiangong 1, a module of the country's planned space lab, from the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center on Monday.
By
updated 11/14/2011 7:47:28 PM ET 2011-11-15T00:47:28

Two unmanned Chinese spacecraft successfully docked together for a second time Monday, state-run media reported, in China's latest step toward placing its own space station in orbit.

The Shenzhou 8 craft re-docked with the Tiangong 1 module that will form part of a future space lab, and the two were jointly orbiting Earth, Xinhua News Agency reported, citing the mission's control center.

About half an hour before the Monday evening docking, Shenzhou 8 had successfully disengaged from the module after a 12-day flight together, Xinhua said.

In a commentary, Xinhua said the Shenzhou 8 mission had "laid a solid steppingstone for deep space exploration."

"The autonomous docking know-how now enables China to build space stations, resupply them, transfer astronauts and rescue them," it said.

One expert said not having to have crews on board when docking spacecraft was a big step toward building a space station and developing a human spaceflight program.

"They have plans to build a space station, and of course that's not possible without perfecting docking between two different craft, and the fact that they have perfected automated docking is a big step forward. The Americans didn't do it for decades after they launched their space program," said Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane's Space Systems and Industry.

Shenzhou 8 was launched Nov. 1 and first docked with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 on Nov. 3. China's first space docking took place in an orbit 213 miles (343 kilometers) above Earth, Xinhua said. The Shenzhou craft is due to return to Earth on Thursday.

The docking mechanism, composed of 10,000 parts, and the more than 600 instruments aboard Shenzhou 8 were all developed and made in China, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space program, was quoted as saying.

China will conduct two more space docking missions next year, and plans to establish its own space lab around 2016 and a manned space station around 2020, Wu said.

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At about 60 tons when completed, the Chinese station will be considerably smaller than the 16-nation International Space Station, which is expected to continue operating through 2028.

China launched its own space station program after being rebuffed in its attempts to join the space station, largely on objections from the United States. The U.S. is wary of the Chinese program's military links and the sharing of technology with its chief economic and political rival.

Xinhua said Monday that "tiny adjustments" could make the Chinese docking mechanism compatible with the ports of the space station, as it allows any two similarly equipped spacecraft to dock with each other.

It also said that China allowed Germany to conduct biological experiments in a docking vehicle — the first instance of international cooperation since the beginning of China's manned space program.

Bond said Europe seems "more open" to collaborating with China in space. "I think that's to their mutual benefit," he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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