Tim Furniss/LONDON

China will launch the first unmanned test flight of its spacecraft and booster system next year in preparation for its first manned mission in 2003.

China Great Wall Industry (CGWIC) says the manned space programme will involve an uprated version of the Long March 2E satellite launch vehicle. The spacecraft will be based on the design of the Russian Soyuz T craft, which conducted regular trips to the Mir space station.

The new Long March 2F has a Russian Soyuz-like payload shroud on top of the booster, and a Soyuz-class launch escape tower. The Chinese have been working closely with the Russians on the design of the spacecraft, and two astronauts have undergone a Soyuz training programme.

Meanwhile, CGWIC launched its sixth mission for Motorola's Iridium mobile satellite system on 11 June. A Long March 2C took off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre, carrying two of the Lockheed Martin/Motorola-built satellites into 86º-inclination, 775-780km orbits.

Motorola has contracted CGWIC to continue launching pairs of satellites, to replenish the operational 66-satellite constellation in case any of them should break down. Five more launches of a total of 10 satellites could be made through to 2003.

Source: Flight International