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China flexes its space muscles with lesson in zero gravity

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping conducts a school lesson from space
  • The astronaut addressed students through a live link-up from the Chinese space module
  • Wang fielded questions about space junk, weighing mass in space and UFOs
  • China has an ambitious space program that includes landing a man on the moon after 2020

Hong Kong (CNN) -- In a further sign that China is edging ahead as the world's dominant space power, Wang Yaping -- the second Chinese woman in space -- gave a physics lesson to school children from zero gravity.

Speaking through a video link from the Shenzhou-10 manned spacecraft to a class of middle school students in Beijing, Wang demonstrated the effects of zero gravity on water and a pendulum.

READ: Super secret base fuels China's space ambitions

The blue-clad astronaut also showed how she could push a fellow astronaut into the wall of the module with touch of her finger and gulped down the drop of water as it floated in mid-air.

Mass audience

More than 60 million students across China watched the lecture on China's state broadcaster CCTV as Wang demonstrated Newton's second law of motion (force equals mass times acceleration) and the surface tension of water.

China's Shenzhou 10 rocket blasts off from the Gobi Desert in the city of Jiuquan, in China's Gansu province, on Tuesday, June 11. The craft is scheduled to dock with the Tiangong-1 space module, where the three crew members will transfer supplies to the space lab, which has been in orbit since September 2011. China's Shenzhou 10 rocket blasts off from the Gobi Desert in the city of Jiuquan, in China's Gansu province, on Tuesday, June 11. The craft is scheduled to dock with the Tiangong-1 space module, where the three crew members will transfer supplies to the space lab, which has been in orbit since September 2011.
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Wang fielded questions from students that ranged from whether the team had seen any space junk or even UFOs, to the efficacy of weight scales in space.

The demonstration drew a spirited response on social media in China, with comments on Weibo -- China's equivalent of Twitter -- ranging from enthusiastic support for the country's space program, to questioning the cost of the Shenzhou-10 program.

"The U.S. used to be proud of their space class, (but) now we've made it, too!" one user posted. "We should be proud of this. What others have, we have it too."

Experimental space station

China launched three astronauts into space on board the Shenzhou-10 craft last week to dock with Tiangong-1, an experimental space station used to test orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities.

It is China's fifth manned mission to space in a decade.

While the space station only has a two-year operational lifespan, the development of a permanent space station is part of Beijing's ambitious multi-billion dollar space plan, which is being hailed by the Communist Party as a symbol of China's growing technical expertise.

READ: Will China overtake America in space?

China first sent a human into space in 2003 but is already planning to complete its space station by 2020, and sometime afterwards land a man on the moon. Despite the ambitious space program, China still lags Russia and the U.S. and is still attempting to reach milestones achieved by the two superpowers decades ago.

Playing catch-up

Despite these limitations, China's Tiangong-1 space station is half the size of the first space station, Salyut 1, that the Soviets sent up in 1971 -- analysts say that China is able to take advantage of advances in spaceflight technology.

"What we have seen more than anything else is a truly long-term commitment to space that dates back at least 25 years, and a sustained interest during those 25 years," Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, a policy research group in Washington DC, told the New Scientist.

He said NASA's human spaceflight program has struggled under changing budgets and governments while the Chinese space program had seen ordered and incremental progress since the 1990s.

"So as long as the money holds out and political stability reigns, they might well get to some place like Mars or establish a lunar presence, precisely because they are persistent and willing to spend the money and make the effort," he said.

CNN's Feng Ke in Beijing contributed to this report.

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