What do you do when your astronauts are not hosted by the International Space Station, the only platform for human crews to stay and conduct experiments in space? Well, if you are China, you construct your own space station. The trio of Chinese astronauts who have blasted off from Gobi desert for what is China’s first crewed space flight in five years, and also its longest ever, will help with the building of the Tiangong space station as the dragon ups its space game.
What Is The Mission?
The spacecraft carrying the three astronauts is called Shenzhou-12 and the rocket which will lift them to the space station is called the Long March-2F Y12. The launch of Shenzhou-12, which means ‘Divine Vessel’ in Chinese, is the first crewed mission for taking forward the construction of China’s space station.
China has planned a total of 11 space missions through which it will move the components and finalise the setting up of its space station, to be called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, when it is completed. The Shenzhou-12 launch is the third in the series with the goal being to complete the construction of the space station by the end of 2022.
China will use three of the 11 missions to set up the core module of its space station, which sits at the moment in low-Earth orbit. The remaining eight missions are split into four cargo vessel flights and four manned missions, of which the first has now taken off.
For the first two missions, the Tianhe core module was sent into orbit on April 29 this year followed by the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft that was launched on May 29, to dock with Tianhe. Tianhe means ‘Heavenly Harmony’ in Chinese.
What Will The Astronauts Do?
Considering that they will spend about three months in space — it will be China’s longest crewed space mission, the previous record for Chinese astronauts was 33 days — the three astronauts have a range of tasks to attend to.
First up, the Shenzhou-12 spaceship will dock with the Tianhe core module “to form a complex with the core module and the Tianzhou-2 cargo ship". From there, the astronauts will move to the core module, which will serve as their living space, and “start working and living with a synchronised work and rest arrangement between space and ground," Chinese media said.
Among the astronauts’ duties while on board will be technology verification, space supply replenishment, in-orbit maintenance and extravehicular activities (read space walks). China’s Manned Space Engineering Office has said that the Chinese astronauts will go out for two spacewalks during which they will instal and repair equipment.
Importantly, showing how this mission is key in practically every respect, it will also test “for the first time the search and rescue of astronauts at the Dongfeng landing site" when the astronauts finally head back to Earth using their re-entry capsule.
Who Are The Astronauts?
The oldest of the three is 56-year-old Nie Haisheng, reportedly a former fighter pilot with the People’s Liberation Army and the leader of the mission. Just a couple of years younger than Nie and Operator 1 for the mission is Liu Boming, whom Chinese media said is a fighter jet pilot and a major general in the People’s Liberation Army. Liu was part of the 2008 Shenzhou-7 mission, the first by China to feature three astronauts.
That mission also saw the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut when Liu helped fellow traveller Zhai Zhigang step out of the spacecraft.
“The (mission) is longer this time, and not only do we have to set up the core module — this ‘home’ in space — we’ve to carry out a series of pivotal technical tests," Nie told reporters at the launch site at Jiuquan in the country’s northwestern Gansu province.
For Tang Hongbo, the third astronaut, it has been a long wait to travel to space as he has spent 11 years in the wings before getting the nod for a mission.
Why Are All Eyes On China’s Space Station?
China’s space programme has made some important strides in recent years and having its own space station will firmly put it in the top rung of space-faring nations.
In the last year, China has landed rovers on Mars and the Moon while also successfully conducting the preliminary launches for its space station. China also brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space programme since the 1970s and there is also talk of China building a research base on the Moon.
It is estimated that the Tiangong space station, once ready, can stay operational for a period of 10 years. That means it can potentially outlast the International Space Station (ISS), which reports suggest may not be active beyond the second half of this decade. While the ISS has hosted more than 200 visitors from 19 countries, Chinese astronauts have been kept out thanks mainly to US objections.
But hinting at a readiness to cooperate with other countries, Assistant Director of the China Manned Space Agency, Ji Qiming, told reporters at the Gobi desert launch site that with China stepping up international cooperation and exchanges, it’s only a matter of time before foreign astronauts join Chinese astronauts on missions to the station.