China's To-Do List This Week: Dock With Space Lab, Explore Mariana Trench

Two exploration exploits fuel national pride

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China's To-Do List This Week: Dock With Space Lab, Explore Mariana Trench

From earth orbit to the watery deeps, it's been a good week for Chinese scientists and technologists.

This Monday, China's Shenzhou IX spacecraft successfully docked with its orbiting space module, letting a crew of three "taikonauts" board the space lab for the first time.

The docking and entry into the space lab was a matter of intense national pride, and the government televised all the procedures at the Tiangong 1 module, a name that means "heavenly palace." The crew included China's first female taikonaut Liu Yang, a pilot from the Chinese Air Force. Before her name was announced there were some bizarre statements from Chinese space experts about the criteria for selecting China's first space-going woman; they declared that she must be married, have given birth naturally, and have no scars or body odor.

The orbiting module is only about 10 meters long by 3 across, and is intended as a precursor to a larger space station that is scheduled to be launched in three sections beginning around 2020. China is also planning manned missions to the moon, maybe as soon as 2025.

Back on our own planet, another crew of intrepid Chinese explorers steered a submersible down into the Mariana Trench. The Jiaolong submersible, which I wrote about last year, was designed to be the deepest diving research sub in the world. This week the three-person sub descended into the Mariana Trench, the deepest crevice on Earth, and set a record for manned research submersibles when it reached a depth of 6965 meters below sea level. Today the Jiaolong is diving again, and the researchers hope to reach the ceremonial depth of 7000 meters before returning home. Before this week's mission, Japan's Shinkai 6500 was the deepest diving research sub.   

Of course, a good deal of the Jiaolong's thunder has been stolen by private citizens who have built their own submersibles capable of reaching the absolute nadir of the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 000 meters down. Film director James Cameron completed that ultimate dive in March in his DeepSea Challenger, which has been described as a "vertical torpedo." Meanwhile the Virgin Oceanic team, funded in part by Sir Richard Branson, is still trying to get its underwater plane ready for the Mariana mission. However, these private vessels aren't capable of serious scientific exploration or extensive sample collection.

Images: Xinhua; ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

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