Astronauts Dock, China Long-Term In Orbit


three chinese astronauts It docked at the country’s still-under-construction space station on Thursday and, starting with what their governments expect, will have a continuous presence of Chinese astronauts in Earth orbit for a decade or more.

6 hours 32 minutes after astronauts exploded From a base in the Gobi Desert on a clear, sunny morning, the spacecraft Shenzhou-12 docked with the station’s core module.

“It was an excellent meeting and docking process,” Sun Jun, deputy director of the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center, told state broadcaster CCTV, adding that the mission so far “fulfilled our original goal.”

However, the Chinese station, called Tiangong or Heavenly Palace, has become one of two crowded outposts in orbit. The other, the International Space Station, operating for more than two yearsbut its future is uncertain due to its age, budgetary constraints and tensions between its main partners, the US and Russia.

The Chinese space program, which independently built its station, does not face such a problem, although it invites other countries to contribute to the experiments and welcomes foreign astronauts in the future.

The completion of Tiangong, expected by the end of next year, will be another milestone for an ambitious space program, including its final missions. bring back samples from the moon and a robotic rover landing on Mars.

The launch on Thursday was shown live on Chinese state television, reflecting the growing confidence by senior officials in the space program. Their missions are often disguised in military-like secrecy, presumably for fear that something might go wrong, at least in some cases. Images from the last Mars mission were not released for days.

In response, ahead of Thursday’s launch, China’s space agency held briefings for selected news outlets, as well as interviews with astronauts. escort To the launch site just after dawn on Thursday by a motorcycle ranger along the streets filled with flag-waving people.

“It feels great,” said the mission’s commander, Major General Nie Haisheng, in a video Thursday morning that showed him and the others preparing to board the Shenzhou-12. “My heart flies, boldly advancing.”

Top political and military leaders watched from the space launch center or Beijing flight control center near Jiuquan, a city on the edge of the Gobi, close to China’s border with Mongolia. They included Han Zheng, one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing, the Communist Party’s highest governing body, headed by the country’s leading leader, Xi Jinping.

Mr. Xi, unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, did not agree. witness The beginning of China’s first manned space flights, which began in 2003. The country’s string of successful missions in space has been touted by officials and state media as a confirmation of the Communist Party’s rule in China and Mr. Xi’s position at the top.

All three astronauts are party members, and they and other space officials have repeatedly credited Mr. Xi or the party for the country’s achievements in space. Several officials noted that the mission would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the official founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai on July 1, 1921.

“The construction and operation of the space station can be considered an important symbol that measures a country’s economic, technological and comprehensive strength,” Ji Qiming, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency, said at a pre-launch briefing.

The three astronauts are China’s first space travel since 2016. This is only China’s seventh crewed mission, but more to come. Three additional launches will transport astronauts to the space station over the next year and a half to complete construction.

China launched the station’s main module in April and docked a cargo ship a month later. A vehicle modeled on Soviet-era Soyuz capsules, the Shenzhou-12 consists of three modules, including a reentry vehicle that will bring astronauts back to Earth.

The remainder of Shenzhou-12 will be a third part of the space station, orbiting 242 miles or 390 kilometers above Earth and slightly lower than the International Space Station at 248 miles.

The astronauts will stay in space for three months. Since the station is under construction, the main task of the astronauts is to essentially get inside, start installing equipment such as cameras, and begin testing various functions, including life support and waste management. They are scheduled to perform two spacewalks.

General Nie, commander of the People’s Liberation Army Astronaut Brigade, is a former fighter pilot and veteran of the two previous Shenzhou missions in 2005 and 2013. In a briefing to reporters on Wednesday, he said this task will be more challenging and challenging. than the first.

“Not only will we have to organize the core module, the ‘spacehouse’, but we will have to do a number of important technology validations,” he said.

At 56, he is the oldest Chinese astronaut to fly in space. (The oldest person to do so was John Glenn, the first American in orbit. return 36 years later, in 1998, at the age of 77, on the space shuttle Discovery.)

Another crew member, Major General Liu Boming, 54, is also a space veteran who was part of a 2008 mission that included China’s first spacewalk. This feat was accomplished by another astronaut, Zhai Zhigang, but General Liu appeared briefly to become the second Chinese astronaut to walk through space through a portal. The third astronaut, Colonel Tang Hongbo, 45, makes his first voyage after 11 years of training.

China previously launched two short-lived prototype space stations, also called Tiangong, in 2011 and 2016. This station is intended to be more durable and serve as an orbiting laboratory for the country’s space program for the next decade.

Officials said the station will allow Chinese astronauts and scientists on the ground to perfect complex operations and conduct experiments in a weightless space environment. At least nine planned experiments so far involve international partners.

Although NASA is prohibited by federal law from cooperating with China in space, the agency’s director, Bill Nelson, congratulated China on Thursday. He added that he looks forward to “future scientific discoveries.”

Officials said they would consider moving foreign astronauts to the station once the station is complete.

Mr. Ji, the space agency’s deputy director, admitted at a briefing that China was a “latecomer” in the construction of orbiting space stations that the US and Soviet Union had accomplished decades ago. However, he said China is taking advantage of “latecomers”.

Tiangong is being built at a time when Russia and the United States are discussing the future of the International Space Station, and China and Russia cooperate more closely in space discovery.

The International Space Station was originally scheduled to be retired in 2015, just four years after construction was complete, but its lifespan was later extended to 2020, then to 2024. Legislation recently passed by the United States Senate proposes another extension to 2030.

In 2018, President Donald J. Trump’s administration said it wanted to end direct federal funding for the station after 2024 and shift its orbital operations to private space stations. But after criticism of this decision, NASA officials insisted it was not a fixed deadline. A NASA feasibility study concluded that the aging space station could last until at least 2028, but Russia has signaled that it may consider withdrawing from the project before then.

Claire Fu contributed to the research.


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