Beijing, Jun 24 - Chinese astronauts today successfully completed the country's first-ever manual space docking, a critical manoeuvre linking their spacecraft with an experimental space lab module, bringing Beijing a step closer to its ambitious plan to build a space station.
The three astronauts, including China's first woman cosmonaut Liu Yang, seated in their spacecraft Shenzhou-9 (Divine Grace) docked with the orbiting Tiangong-1 lab (Heavenly Palace) the first experimental space with text book precession, an event telecast live by the state-run CCTV.
With today's manual docking, China becomes third country after Russia and the US to accomplish such a feat in space.
The event was timed to coincide with the Dragon Boat festival being celebrated all over China today.
The two spacecraft which were separated earlier through an automatic procedure were conjoined again in a manual process which took about 10 minutes.
The ground staff cheered as the three astronauts showed victory sign announcing the successful docking, regarded as an essential manoeuvre, critical during emergencies, when the automatic system fail.
To leave room for manual adjustment, engineers set up four berth points for the spaceship on the same orbit five km, 400 meters, 140 meters and 30 meters away from the orbiting lab. The spacecraft and the space lab were joined together by an automated docking on June 18.
Shenzhou-9 was sent into space on June 16 from a launch centre in China's northwest Gobi desert.
A highly sophisticated space manoeuvre, manual docking requires the astronauts to link together two orbiters traveling at 7.8 kilometers a second in space without a hitch.
Russia's International Space Station, Mir, currently orbiting in the space has experienced 15 failures of manual docking a decade ago, according to Chinese scientists.
China plans to build the similar space lab of its own by 2020 after a series of experimental launches.
Today's docking was performed by the third member of the crew, Liu Wang, who scored highest marks during the training in simulators. He was assisted by the commander of the team Jing Haipeng and Liu Yang.
They practiced the manual docking for about 1500 times.
With the manual docking, which is their main assignment for this mission was over, the three astronauts would return to earth in about week, ending their two week long stay in space, the longest by Chinese astronauts so far.
They are due to conduct some more medical and biological experiments before their return.
Today's successful manoeuvre means China has completely grasped the space rendezvous and docking technologies and had the fundamental abilities to build a space station, a report by state-run Xinhua news agency said.
Shenzhou-9 and Tiangong-1 successfully conducted an automated docking and astronauts on June 18.
Compared with the automated docking, the manual docking is more challenging in terms of orbit control, said Xie Jianfeng, a space scientist with the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre.
China's first unmanned space docking was completed successful last year with the docking of the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1. PTI