China successfully launched three astronauts into space in what’s a step closer to finishing its new space station. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft (or the Divine Vessel) was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, sending the crew to the core module of the planned space station.
The spacecraft will dock with the core module on the planned space station, called Tiangong (or Heavenly Palace), which is still under construction in a low Earth orbit. The astronauts will stay in orbit for three months, during which the life support system and maintenance will be tested. It’s China’s first manned mission in almost five years.
The Tianhe module is 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters across at its widest point. Inside, the astronauts will have to test equipment and technology, some of which have never been used before in a manned space flight. The module also has a set of tools to help the astronauts, including a robotic arm that can move to any location on the station’s surface.
The mission is led by Nie Haisheng, who is also the oldest member of the team and has a background as a fighter pilot. He was recruited to the space program in 1998 and this was his third trip into space. He was aboard China’s first mission with more than one astronaut in 2005 and then was part of the 2013 mission to test its docking technology.
The second crew member is Liu Boming. He joined China’s 2008 space mission, helping Zhai Zhigang become the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. Now, he will have a key role during outside cabin operations. Tang Hongbo is the crew’s youngest member and the only one of the three that hasn’t traveled to space yet.
“This mission will be the first manned flight as part of the China space station’s construction. I’m very fortunate to kick off the first leg of the space station’s construction,” Nie said at a press conference. “China’s space exploration development has crystallized the Chinese people’s thousand-year dream of flying to the sky.”
A new space station
Over the years, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries — but not China. Its astronauts can’t access the ISS because of political objections coming from the United States. This is why China has had the long-time goal of building a space station of its own, a plan that is now starting to take shape.
In April, China launched the first module of the space station – which will have to be assembled from several modules launching at different times. The station is expected to be finished by 2022 and is supposed to operate for 10 years. It will the largest artificial structure in space when the ISS is eventually retired.
The module holds living quarters that will house astronauts for up to six months at a time. In the future, two laboratory modules will also be sent up, followed by four cargo shipments and four rockets laden with crew. Roughly 12 astronauts are currently in training in preparation for missions aboard the Chinese Space Station.
China’s National Space Administration has already selected experiments to be run onboard the station, including work with ultracold atoms to research quantum mechanics, materials science research and work on medicine in microgravity. It also has several international partners that will send experiments onto the space station.
The new station and Russia’s intention to leave the ISS could spell an end to an era of international cooperation in space. Zhou Jianping, chief designer on China’s manned space program, said in a press conference that while China is not considering foreign astronaut participation at this stage of the station’s development, non-Chinese astronauts will “certainly” be welcome into the years ahead. Whether or not that becomes the case, however, remains to be seen.
China became the third country to independently make a soft landing on the Moon in October 2003, launched a pair of experimental single-module space stations, and have collaborated closely with other countries in the field of space exploration. It also launched an unmanned rover to the dark side of the moon.