On November 1, 2011, China launched Shenzhou VIII spacecraft with the aim of performing automatic rendezvous and docking test and making a breakthrough in automatic rendezvous and docking technology. The docking target vehicle is Tiangong 1 that was launched on September 29, 2011.
Shenzhou VIII spacecraft, an improved manned spacecraft, consists of three modules: re-entry module, propellant module and orbit module. With a length of 9 meters, a maximum diameter of 2.8 meters (9 feet), it has a lift-off weight of 8,082 kilograms. Shenzhou VIII spacecraft has an added feature of rendezvous facilities and docking mechanisms to conduct automatic and manned rendezvous&docking and separation. Shenzhou VIII spacecraft was launched by a modified Long March-2F carrier rocket, which has upgraded its booster, control system and failure detection system to improve its reliability and accuracy into orbit. The rocket, 58.3 meters (191 feet) long, has a liftoff weight of 497,000 kilograms and a payload capacity of 8,130 kilograms.
Shenzhou VIII spacecraft was launched at 5:58:07 November 1, 2011 atop a LongMarch 2F carrier rocket and accurately sent into the designed orbit. After that, Shenzhou VIII completed several orbital maneuvers and finally entered the same orbit with Tiangong 1 and established a relative navigation with Tiangong 1. Then, at 23:08 November 2, 2011, Shenzhou VIII turned to automatic navigation. Under the guidance of Rendezvous & Docking instruments, Shenzhou VIII drifted towards Tiangong I and gradually approached it until the two docking mechanisms started to get engaged. Following that, the two docking mechanisms completed the process of capturing, buffering, pulling back and locking. At 01:36 a.m. November 3, 2011, the two spacecrafts were ultimately physically connected to form the assembly and accomplished the rendezvous and docking process.
Shenzhou VIII separated from Tiangong I after 12 days of flight. At 20:00 November 14, 2011, Tiangong I and Shenzhou VIII successfully performed the second rendezvous and docking test and formed a combined unit again, which further validates the safety and reliability of China's space rendezvous and docking technology. After 2 days of flight, Shenzhou VIII and Tiangong I successfully separated again.
Then Shenzhou VIII spacecraft flied according to the scheduled return procedure and at 19:32 November 17, 2011, the re-entry module of Shenzhou VIII spacecraft landed on the main landing site. Tiangong I changed to long operation orbit and waited for next rendezvous and docking.
The successful completion of Tiangong I / Shenzhou VIII Rendezvous and Docking Mission indicates that China has made a major breakthrough in rendezvous and docking technology. It is a big stride in China's space technology and a critical milestone in China’s manned space industry.