China begins countdown on space blitz

China begins countdown on space blitz

Hundreds of millions will see spacewalk live on TV

China is to launch at least 10 spacecraft this year, officials have said, and two astronauts are already preparing for the country's first spacewalk.

The number of Chinese space launches has increased from fewer than two per year in the 1990s to an average of eight per year now.

The highlight of 2008 will be the Shenzhou VII mission, featuring the spacewalk, and Shenzhou VIII in which two spacecraft will rendezvous and dock in orbit.

"Usually, other countries conduct 20 to 30 flight experiments to master the two technologies, but China plans to do it in two attempts," said Yang Baohua, chief of the China Academy of Space Technology, according to the China Daily.

The US and the Soviet Union followed a cautious step-by-step approach as they learned how to safely dock two spacecraft 40 years ago at a time when little was known about the low gravity environment and other potential hazards.

In a sign of growing confidence in the country's space technology, Chinese officials are hoping to broadcast the Shenzhou VII spacewalk live on national TV.

China will also launch several self-developed satellites, including the first two of a trio of weather satellites. A Chinese launch vehicle will also put foreign-owned spacecraft into orbit, including a Venezuelan communications satellite.

"China's space technology has entered a new stage. The design and manufacture of satellites take less time. Homemade satellites are more reliable and have a longer lifespan," said Yang.