The China space program is set to dock two orbiting spacecraft Wednesday afternoon, moving it one step closer to orbiting a space station early next decade.
Two Chinese spacecraft are set to perform the country's first orbital docking Wednesday, perhaps as early as 1:15 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
If successful, the event would represent a significant milestone on the country's path to orbiting a space station early next decade.
On Nov. 1, China launched an unmanned Shenzhou capsule to perform the docking. The capsule, modeled after the Russian Soyuz capsule, has carried six taikonauts into space during three missions, beginning with the country's first manned launch in 2003.
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The capsule's target is China's Tiangong 1, a 9.4-ton prototype module similar in size to the docking module the Russians contributed to the International Space Station. Tiangong 1 sleeps two, and also hosts an exercise machine. The China National Space Administration launched the module Sept. 29.
The docking represents a hybrid approach, teaming maneuvers controlled from the ground with an automated system for final approach and mating.
The mission calls for controllers to guide Shenzhou 8, the mission's official designation, to within about 30 miles of Taingong 1. After that, the automated docking system takes over, according to China Daily.