Three astronauts begin half-year mission on Chinese space station

15 mins read

Three astronauts floated into the living quarters of China’s space station Friday, hours after launching from a military-run spaceport in the Gobi Desert, moving in for a six-month mission to prepare the outpost for expansion next year.

The Shenzhou 13 mission, China’s eighth human spaceflight mission, launched Friday from the Jiuquan space center in northwestern China.

A Long March 2F rocket ignited its core stage engine and four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters at 12:23:53 p.m. EDT (1623 GMT; 12:23 a.m. Beijing time). The engines, each consuming a toxic mix of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants, generated 1.4 million pounds of thrust to steer the rocket east from Jiuquan.

The launch was timed for the moment Earth’s rotation brought the launch site underneath the space station’s orbital plane.

After separation from the rocket, the Shenzhou 23 spacecraft unfurled solar panels and began maneuvers to match its orbit with that of the station. The rendezvous culminated in an automated docking with the station’s Tianhe core module at 6:56 p.m. EDT (2256 GMT).

Shenzhou 13 became the first spacecraft to dock to the nadir, or Earth-facing, port on the Tianhe module. The forward and aft ports are occupied by two Tianzhou cargo ships launched earlier this year.

The new crew’s flight plan aims to double the three-month stay by the Shenzhou 12 astronauts that ended in September.

The second crew to live on the Chinese space station will conduct more testing of the lab’s life support systems, and will head outside for spacewalks to prepare for the arrival of two new research modules.

But Zhai Zhigang, commander of the Shenzhou 13 mission, said in a pre-launch press conference that the most challenging part of the flight will be its marathon duration.

“We need to stay in a weightless environment for six months,” he said through an interpreter. “So a big challenge to our physical and mental situation. We will, for sure, encounter some challenges in terms of physical and mental health, and also technical issues.

A Long March 2F rocket blasts off with the Shenzhou 13 mission. Credit: Xinhua
“The success of the mission depends on we three,” said Zhai, a veteran of one previous Shenzhou space mission in 2008. “We shall have an unshaken resolve and fighting spirit.”

Chinese officials assigned Zhai, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu to the Shenzhou 13 mission in December 2019, although the astronauts were not identified publicly until Thursday, the day before launch. The nearly two years of training brought the crew members closer together, Zhai said.

Zhai is a 55-year-old astronaut who holds the rank of major general in the Chinese military.

Wang Yaping, 41, is the first woman to live aboard China’s space station. Wang is the most experienced space flier on Shenzhou 13, with more than 14 days of spaceflight time on the Shenzhou 10 mission in 2013.

The third member of the Shenzhou 13 crew is Ye Guangfu, also 41. Ye is a pilot in the Chinese military, and will launch on his first trip to space.

“For me, personally, this is a great challenge,” Ye said. “But I have every confidence to complete this mission successfully. The confidence comes from generations of astronauts and their efforts, it comes from the teamwork of all the astronauts.

“It also comes from my 11 years of hard work,” Ye said, referring to the time since he joined the Chinese astronaut corps in 2010. “I’m looking forward to this mission. I hope that I have the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of outer space from a new angle, and I can have a bird’s view of planet Earth. I also want to have a bird’s view of the great land of China.”

The three-person crew opened hatches and floated into the Tianhe core module at 9:58 p.m. EDT (0158 GMT), a little more than three hours after docking.

In a press conference Thursday, a spokesperson for the China Manned Space Agency said the main objectives for the Shenzhou 13 mission include testing of technologies for the future assembly and expansion of the Tiangong space station.

The Shenzhou 13 crew is trained to operate robotic arms outside the Tianhe core module, and they have practiced using remote control technology to manually dock visiting Tianzhou cargo ships.

The astronauts will head outside the space station two or three times during their half-year in space to ready the lab for the arrival of new permanent modules in 2022. Wang, who was a Chinese military pilot before joining China’s astronaut corps, will become the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk.

Zhai, Wang, and Ye will evaluate the living and working conditions inside the Tianhe core module. They will test out the station’s life support and exercise systems, and perform a range of scientific experiments, including investigations in space medicine and microgravity physics, according to Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of CMSA.

The astronauts will also speak to the Chinese public in science education and outreach activities. Wang is expected to give at least one science lecture to Chinese students during her time on the Tiangong space station.

Tiangong means heavenly palace in Chinese, while Shenzhou is translated as divine vessel. Tianhe means heavenly harmony, and Tianzhou means heavenly ship.

With the two Tianzhou cargo ships docked, the Tiangong space station stretches to a length of more than 120 feet, or about 38 meters. The Tianhe core module has a width of about 14 feet, or 4.2 meters.

Artist’s illustration of the Chinese space station in its configuration as of October 2021, with the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at the nadir port of the Tianhe core module. Credit: CMSA
henzhou 13 is the fifth of 11 missions in 2021 and 2022 to assemble the Tiangong space station.

The first section of the complex, Tianhe, launched in April on a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket. The Tianzhou 2 cargo ship launched in May, followed by the Shenzhou 12 launch the next month, and the Tianzhou 3 supply mission in September.

After the launch of Shenzhou 13, China plans six more missions in 2022, including the launch of the large Wentian and Mengtian laboratory modules to complete the initial assembly of the space station. Two more Tianzhou cargo ships and two Shenzhou crew spacecraft are also scheduled for launch in 2022.

Lin said Shenzhou 13 is the last mission of the “technology demonstration phase” of the Tiangong space station program. Assuming a successful Shenzhou 13 flight, Chinese officials will perform a “comprehensive system evaluation” before moving into the construction phase, which will include the launch and link-up of the new Wentian and Mention lab modules when the next Chinese crew, Shenzhou 14, is on-board the station next year.

Once the three modules are connected together, the Tiangong station will have a permanent mass of about 66 metric tons, approximately one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station. Visiting vehicles, such as Shenzhou crew ships and Tianzhou cargo freighters, will push the space station’s mass closer to 100 metric tons.

The Tianzhou 5 and Shenzhou 15 missions will launch late next year, beginning a regular rotation of crew and cargo ships to the Tiangong space station.

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