China has taken another important step toward launching its own manned space station with today’s launch of its Shenzhou 10 rocket. Carrying three taikonauts, including the nation’s second female crew member, the rocket is due to dock with the unmanned Tiangong-1 orbiting lab during a 15-day mission.
The crew are expected to dock with the orbiting lab on June 13th, and while the exact mission is unknown, it is likely that China will be carrying out some space-borne experiments and also practicing procedures like automated and manual rendezvous and docking in preparation for its planned manned space station. The duration of the current mission, the longest yet for China, is another indicator of readying for extended manned stays in space.
Separately the International Space Station is detaching from an unmanned Russian Progress supply spacecraft, and its crew is readying for the arrival of the next European ATV cargo supply ship. This penultimate flight for the ATV (which, like SpaceX’s Dragon is one of the primary cargo systems now that the Space Shuttle is retired) is ferrying the largest single dry cargo load to the ISS. Europe has said that it’s considering adapting the ATV tech for future manned space missions, which could include trips to Mars.