China's spaceflight ambitions look set to gain momentum this year with the launch this summer of the country's fourth manned flight, to test rendezvous and docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module.
The Shenzhou-9 mission, scheduled to fly between June and August aboard a Long-March 2F/G rocket, will see three crew members conduct a manual docking before boarding Tiangong-1, living there for an unspecified period and conducting scientific experiments, according to China's government news agency, Xinhua.
The flight will follow the unmanned Shenzhou-8 mission, which last October carried out a rendezvous with Tiangong-1 about a month after the laboratory was orbited. That mission, says Xinhua, established that all relevant systems are in good condition and ready for a manned docking.
The upcoming mission will be closely observed by China watchers, who anticipate a significant push this year to develop the manned programme, which is under military control and has flown three missions - Shenzhou-5, -6 and -7 in 2003, 2005 and 2008, including China's first spacewalk on the 2008 flight.
According to Karl Bergquist, who heads China relations at the European Space Agency, China's 12th five-year plan sets out spaceflight priorities for 2011-2015 as exploitation of the Tiangong-1 laboratory to pave the way for a larger space station, development of a new launcher, Long March 5, establishment of the Beidou satellite navigation system, and a general drive to build a high-resolution satellite data capability.
A national space science centre is being established in Beijing, while a new launch base in Hainan and Long March integration hall in Tainjin are also on the agenda.
Addressing the Royal Aeronautical Society in January, Bergquist added that a robotic exploration programme is rumoured.
Of the LM 5, 6 and 7 programmes little is known, said Bergquist, but the LM 5 is expected to fly in 2014. LM 6 looks like being comparable to Europe's new Vega launcher, with a focus on putting satellites in Sun-synchronous orbits of 700km; the customer is thought to be China's military. And, LM 7 is thought to be pointing toward 5.5t payloads to 700km orbits. Current Long March capability is to put about 14t in Low Earth orbit.
China's programme is sophisticated - an automated docking was achieved in 2011 and plans for Long March variants combined with the Shenzhou capsules point to a flexible launch system - and Bergquist noted that China has strong political ambitions in space, is setting up the infrastructure to pursue them and has 150,000 people involved.
However, Bergquist thinks China's push to become a leading space player hinges on continued economic growth; and the organisational structure of China's space programme could work against it. Some parts of the programme are controlled by civil authorities and others, such as manned spaceflight, by the military. Bergquist added it is not always clear that the two are willing, or able, to co-operate.