BEIJING – A “new step” in China’s space conquest: Three astronauts set out on Sunday for the “heavenly palace”, the station that Beijing is building into orbit and which should now be permanently occupied.
The spacecraft for their Shenzhou-14 mission was powered by a Long March 2F rocket, which took off from the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi Desert (northwest) at 10:44 a.m. local time (0244 GMT). The public broadcaster broadcasts live footage from the CCTV launch.
A quarter of an hour later, an official from the space agency responsible for the Human Spaceflight (CMSA) announced the “success” of the launch.
Like the crew on the Shenzhou-13 mission that returned in mid-April, three astronauts, including a woman, are expected to stay on the space station for about six months.
Named after the Chinese Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) but also known by its abbreviated form CSS (for “Chinese space station” in English), it should be fully operational by the end of the year.
Notable among the crew was Liu Yang, 43, who was the first Chinese woman in space (2012).
He will be joined by Chen Dong, 43, and Kai Juje, 46, who are making their maiden flight into space after 12 years of preparation.
The main challenge for Shenzhou-14’s crew: to receive and install two new laboratory modules, which will be docked at the station.
They will be launched from Earth in July and October. The latter will significantly increase the size and scale of the space station.
“After successfully docking the modules, crews will need to use a robotic arm to catch them, unlock them, rotate them 90 degrees and dock them at another port,” said Chen Lan, an analyst at Go Taikonauts.com, a Chinese space specialist.
– “A real test” –
These important methods will need to be coordinated with the engineers of the world.
“China has never conducted such a complex operation before, except at Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). It will be a real test for the crew and equipment,” said Chen Lan.
Once these laboratory modules are installed, the general structure of the station will be finalized in T-shape.
It will then be shaped like the former Russian-Soviet station Mir. Its lifespan should be at least 10 years if not 15 years.
The Shenzhou-14 crew will also spacewalk, conduct a series of experiments and maintain Tiangang.
New to this mission: For the first time, two Chinese crew will pass the baton in the orbit of the station.
Towards the end of their position, before returning to Earth, the three Shenzhou-14 astronauts will actually spend a few days in orbit with their three colleagues from their future Shenzhou-15 mission.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP: “With the Shenzhou-14, the Chinese manned spacecraft is taking a new step,” beginning the permanent occupation of the station. “
“In other words, from now on, the goal is that there will always be Chinese astronauts in space.”
– Space Travel –
China has been forced to build its own station due to its exclusion from the ISS, as the United States has banned NASA from cooperating with Beijing.
The Asian giant has been investing billions of euros in its space program for decades.
China launched its first astronaut in 2003. Since then, it has achieved some notable achievements, especially in recent years.
In early 2019, it placed a machine far to the moon, the first of its kind in the world. In 2020, it returned samples from the moon and finalized the satellite navigation system of Beidu, a competitor to American GPS.
In 2021, he landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send men to the moon by 2030.
In the long run, China plans to offer space tourism, Zhou Xianping, conductor of the Chinese manned program, said in March.