China Launches Shenzhou IV Spacecraft

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China launched its Shenzhou IV spacecraft at 12:40 AM local time on 30 December 2002. The spacecraft was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center located in Gansu Province.

As was the case with its three predecessors, Shenzhou IV is unmanned. This test flight serves as engineering test for a spacecraft which will eventually carry a human crew.

The first Shenzhou flight in late 1999 and the third flight in March 2002 were largely successful. The second flight in January 2000 met with only partial success.

The Shenzhou spacecraft shows a clear design heritage with Russia's Soyuz spacecraft - but with significant modifications. Shenzhou is larger than a Soyuz with greater power generating capacity and maneuvering capability. While the crew complement is not known for certain, the spacecraft should be capable of hosting three - perhaps four people.

In each case, the Shenzhou left an orbital module in orbit which continued on an autonomous mission for a number of months after the reentry module returned to Earth. This orbital module has its own propulsion, guidance, navigation, and communications systems. It also has its own solar panels for power generation.

It is widely expected that this is the last unmanned test flight of the Shenzhou spacecraft. Barring any complications during this mission, China is expected to launch a Shenzhou with a human crew within the next year or so.

According to the Xinhua news agency "Zhao Jun, commander and chief designer of the landing system, said a number of land and marine emergency rescue zones had been set up, and rescue workers had conducted some trial rescue operations in line with requirements set for manned flights."

Shenzhou was developed by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology and the Shanghai Aerospace Technology Research Institute under the auspices of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Company Group.

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