Space analysts say the Szenzhou rocket is a bigger version of a Soviet-era spacecraft. The name means "divine vessel" or "magic vessel." The rocket, which will be launched by a Long March 2F booster, has an orbital module, a service module, and a passenger module that holds a single crew member.
The Szenzhou 5 will also be outfitted with an alarm system to avoid collisions between the craft and chunks of speeding space debris.
Three finalists have been selected, but it's presumed that the pilot was not named until shortly before the launch today. A Chinese official said that an early disclosure of the first manned mission crew would "cause a psychological strain on the yuhangyuan."
Experts had long speculated that October 15 would be a likely launch date, coming a day after a key Communist Party meeting in Beijing. But weather and solar activities will also dictate the time of the launch.
The Szenzhou 5 spacecraft is likely to orbit the Earth for around 21 hours and then land at a pre-selected area, probably in the Mongolian desert.
The orbital module, which has solar panels attached to it, will detach from Szenzhou 5 and remain behind in orbit as a mini-space station for six months.
Earlier this year, Chinese space official Zhang Qinqwei told the People's Daily newspaper that these modules will remain in space "to lay a foundation for China's second-step manned spaceflight projectforming a docking link between a spacecraft and another flight vehicle."
The spacecraft will reportedly also carry 2,200 grams of seeds as part of a long-standing Chinese program that seeks to develop new varieties of plants by exposing the seeds to space radiation and zero gravity.
More than 50 nations have national space programs, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Dozens of countries are racing to reach space before their neighbors do. India recently announced it will send a probe to orbit the moon by 2008.
Some of China's neighbors, particularly India and Japan, now worry that the Chinese space program will have military applications. The launch is bound to hasten Japan's ballistic missile defense program.
Many space programs, including China's, are sending satellites into space, which could be used to spy on neighbors. The unmanned Szenzhou 2, 3 and 4 are believed to have carried a military electronic-intelligence package.
Chinese officials have sought to downplay any fears of military use, and say they intend to expand China's exploration of space for peaceful means. A robotic mission to the moon could take place as early as 2006.
There are also plans to construct a space station, as well as human travel to the moon.
Advocates for space research welcome China's entry into space.
"This launch is significant to world space exploration because it adds one more significant player and opens up whole new avenues in cooperation or competition," said Bruce Betts, the director of projects at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.
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