Three Chinese astronauts took off on Sunday for the space station that Beijing is building into orbit and which will be fully operational by the end of the year.
China’s space conquest “new step”: Three astronauts set sail for the “heavenly palace” on Sunday, 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 that took off from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi Desert (northwest) at 10:44 a.m. local time (Swiss time 4:44 a.m.). The public broadcaster broadcasts live footage from the CCTV launch. A quarter later, an official from the space agency in charge of the manned flight (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). This 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 the shape of T. It will then be similar in shape to the former Russian-Soviet Mir station. 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: “In other words, from now on, the goal is that there will always be Chinese astronauts in space.”
The United States has banned NASA from working with Beijing, forcing China to build its own station. 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, it landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send people to the moon by 2030. In the long run, China plans to offer space tourism, Zhou Xianping, conductor of China’s man-made program, said in March.