Three male astronauts will visit China’s Tianhe module this Thursday, which is the core of its new space station.
three chinese astronauts are goingTo spend about three months in Tianhe core module. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft will launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northern China’s Gobi Desert.
The launch is expected at 9:22 a.m. Thursday local time, the equivalent of 6:22 p.m. Wednesday. Can we see together? This is an open question. Chinese state media may take a livestream of the launch, and we’ll post it here as soon as we know.
Why is crew flight such a big deal? It is the first time in five years that China is sending “Taikonauts” – Chinese astronauts – into space. The three taikonauts selected to travel in flight are Ni Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo. Haisheng has flown on two previous flights, while Boming has flown on one. This will be the first flight to Hongbo.
China’s last crewed launch took place on October 17, 2016 and docked with China’s last space station, Tiangong-2. That station no longer orbits Earth, having been intentionally orbited in July 2019.
In April, China began construction of its next generation space station. Two additional modules will be launched in the coming 18 months, but Tianhe is ready to settle for now. When completed, the station will provide a manned outpost in low-Earth orbit for China, allowing the country and partner countries to conduct science experiments for the next decade.
Ji Qing of the China Manned Space Agency said at a news conference on Tuesday that the mission will fulfill some of the main objectives related to the validation of key technologies:
- Astronaut stays in orbit for longer duration
- regenerative environmental control and life support
- crew and material re-supply
- Additional vehicle activities and operations
- maintenance in the classroom
Provided all goes well with the launch, the fledgling station will become the only other operational location outside the International Space Station. It will be about a quarter the size of the ISS when construction is completed in 2022. The upcoming Shenzhou 12 launch is the first of four crewed flights to help build the station.
Why is China building a space station?
Space science and human space flight capabilities with a healthy side of geopolitics.
The US Congress passed a law preventing US contact with China’s space program in 2011, effectively barring China and its taikonauts and scientists from participating in missions to the ISS.
China launched its space station Tiangong-1 in the same year. It operated just four years before its service ended. China’s space program acknowledged that it lost control of the station in early 2016 and two years later, it crashed while landing in the Pacific Ocean. A follow-up station, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016 and intentionally decommissioned in 2019. Both provided a test bed for the new Chinese space station, which is simply named Tiangong.
The new station is expected to orbit about 230 miles above Earth, about 20 miles lower than the ISS, with the ability to move up and down in orbit.
After the launch of Tianhe core module in April,, carried Tianhe into orbit, and returned him to Earth. Its divergence was uncontrolled, raising concerns that it might crash back into a populated region of the planet. Fortunately, Earth has a lot of unpopulated areas – and the booster crashed into the Indian Ocean, though not too far from the Maldives.
The Long March 2F rocket is slightly different from the Long March 5B used in that mission, but questions are being raised over China’s handling of the deorbit process. One of the first questions reporters asked at the conference press was how China was preparing to drop Shenzhou 12’s booster back to Earth.
“The final stages of all types of launchers that perform space station missions have been treated with deactivation technology and will not explode in orbit and generate space debris,” said Kiming, who read from the prepared statement via a translator.
“We look forward to more extensive international exchanges and cooperation with other countries on man-made spacecraft debris and space debris issues to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
Shenzhou-12 Launch View
It is currently unclear whether the Shenzhou 12 launch will be broadcast. The Chinese space agency doesn’t usually provide livestreams – though that may change. Tianhe was launched on YouTube by CCTV and other Chinese state media services. Once we’ve got a link, we’ll throw it here.