China completed its first-ever manual docking between a manned spacecraft and an orbiting lab module on Sunday, putting it a step closer in an ambitious campaign to build a space station.
The Shenzhou 9 and its three-person crew, including the country's first woman in Space Liu Yang, separated about 400 metres from the Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) 1 module for about two minutes before re-connecting under the manual control of the astronauts, with state television covering the event live.
Rendezvous and docking exercises between the two vessels are an important hurdle in China's efforts to acquire the technological and logistical skills to run a full space lab that can house astronauts for long periods.
The Shenzhou 9 had already conducted an automated docking with Tiangong 1, on June 18, a day after it blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Compared with an automated docking, manual docking is more challenging in terms of orbit control, said Xie Jianfeng, a space scientist with the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, told China's official Xinhua news agency on Saturday.