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Nerve hub of China's space programme
By Zhao Huanxin (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2005-10-13 09:18

"10, 9, 8, ..., 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, ignition, launch!"

When controller Guo Baoxin read the launch countdown to fire up the Long March rocket loudly in the remote Northwest China's Gansu Province, he was in fact sitting in a quiet building in Beijing Wednesday morning.

The Beijing Aerospace Control Centre, which is Chinese version of the Moscow and Houston mission centres, serves the nerve hub of China's space programme, processing data and delivering directions to control all of the country's space activities from lift-offs of satellites to manned flights.

"We send all the tele-commands to control Shenzhou VI 277 seconds after it was lifted off by the rocket, till the safe return of the two astronauts; we send directions to change and maintain the craft's orbit and readjust the vessel's posture," said Xi Zheng, director of the Beijing centre.

It takes less than 2 seconds for a direction to reach the spacecraft.

"I won't rest relaxed until the spacecraft tumbles to the earth, and the pair astronauts walk out of their re-entry module, smile."

Xi meant what he said. With his eyes blood swelling, the pilot-turned official examined a multitude of information streaming into his centre from the launch site at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre and all the monitoring stations.

Droplets of sweat came to his forehead.

All together, 9 ground-based stations in China and abroad, and four ships on three oceans are involved in the monitoring and tracking of the country's second manned mission, Xi said.

"All of their data are gathered here," he said. "In case of emergency, contingency decisions will also be made at the centre."

Rows of mission controllers and scientists either click on the keyboards or stared at the four large screen in front of them at the flight control hall.

The screens showed the movement of the capsule with three-dimensional simulation pictures and real videos fed from cameras embedded in the re-entry module, allowing visitors, including State leaders President Hu Jintao, and journalists, to view the launch and flight in real time.

Ten minutes after the Long March 2F rocket blasted off, an astronaut radioed to the centre: "The craft has detached from the rocket normally!"

The message coming down from the sky sounded so soothing to scientists on the ground that they exchanged handclaps.

Another 10 minutes later, Tang Geshi, an orbit specialist, who had been calculating the flying vessel's orbit, worked out the accurate parameters for Shenzhou VI to perform its next move.

The orbit for the craft was determined as an oval orbit with a bank angle of 42.4 degrees, a perigee altitude of 200.65 kilometers and an apogee altitude of 344.7 kilometres, meaning Shenzhou VI will circle the earth above a distance between 200.65 and 344.7 kilometres.

The announcement that the craft had entered its pre-set orbit exploded the flight control hall with applause.

The Beijing centre began preparing for the current mission from last August. Several rehearsals preceded the on-going efforts, according to Xi.

Founded in 1996, the centre has developed and fine-tuned a host of technologies that have ranked it among the world's leading space mission facilities, Xi said.

The technologies include high-accurate spacecraft orbit determining and return control technology, and expertise for flight control automation, intelligent fault detecting and emergency rescue control, Xi said.

"We'll live up to the expectations of the nation to guarantee a complete success of the space mission," he said.

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