China launches third crewed mission to its space station under construction
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2022-06-15  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 16, 2022
Screen image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on June 5 shows three Chinese astronauts, Chen Dong (center), Liu Yang (right) and Cai Xuzhe, saluting after entering the space station core module Tianhe (XINHUA)

The taikonauts, or Chinese astronauts, have become frequent space travelers, with the Shenzhou spacecraft, literally "divine vessel," blasting off to the ever intensified beats of China's space programs.

The latest crewed spacecraft launch took place on June 5, with Shenzhou-14 delivering three taikonauts—Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe—to Tiangong, China's permanent space station, for a six-month stay there.

The spacecraft blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province. About seven hours after the launch, the craft conducted a fast automated rendezvous and docking with the combination of the Tianhe core module, Tianzhou-3 and Tianzhou-4 cargo crafts.

This launch took place roughly 50 days after the Shenzhou-13 crew had returned from a 183-day space residency, China's longest crewed mission to date.

Before the Shenzhou-14 trio's return to Earth, another three taikonauts will join them. The six will live and work together in orbit for five to 10 days, a breakthrough in China's manned spaceflight history. 

It has been almost 19 years since China launched its first manned spacecraft, Shenzhou-5, on October 15, 2003. The latest launch is the 23rd flight mission since the launch of the country's manned space program in the 1990s, and the third crewed mission for China's Tiangong project. The construction of the Tiangong station is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

The new trio 

The three taikonauts currently residing onboard Tiangong are all in their 40s. Liu, 43, was China's first-ever female astronaut in space. This is her second trip after serving as a crew member on the Shenzhou-9 mission in 2012 when she stayed in orbit for 17 days.

"When I said goodbye to space in 2012, I added I would be returning one day," Liu said in an interview with China Central Television. And that day has come for this mother of two.

Chen, the mission's 44-year-old commander, also has two kids—twin boys. He undertook his first voyage in 2016 with Shenzhou-11 and stayed up there for 33 days. Cai, 46, is a space debutant.

At a press conference in Jiuquan prior to the launch, Chen referred to this mission as "a pivotal battle" in the construction of China's permanent space station and added "they would be facing greater challenges."

Crowned the "busiest space trio" by netizens, the three will cooperate with ground control to complete the assembly and construction of Tiangong, designed to form a T-shaped structure composed of three modules: the core module in the middle and two lab modules on both sides.

Currently, only the core module Tianhe is in space. The Shenzhou-13 crew previously concluded its technology verification stage.

The new trio will wait for the arrival of the two lab modules, Wentian and Mengtian, scheduled to be launched in July and October, respectively, and complete the rendezvous, docking and transposition of both lab modules with Tianhe.

Guo Zhi, a senior engineer with the Xi'an Satellite Control Center, revealed that the Shenzhou-14 crew will see five rendezvous and dockings, three separations and two module relocations, making theirs the most complicated in-orbit mission to date.

There are silver linings, though. The taikonauts are, for example, able to enjoy a wider variety of foods that their predecessors never had access to in space, like grapes.

Before their sendoff, two cargo crafts, Tianzhou-3 and Tianzhou-4, had already been launched in September 2021 and this May, respectively, carrying the materials the trio would need in space.

Home sweet home

After construction, the T-shaped Tiangong will accommodate 25 lab cabinets, each of which can function as an individual lab for a wide range of scientific experiments.

The Wentian lab will mainly focus on the study of space life sciences. Astronauts can conduct experiments on molecules, cells and tissues in the lab. It can also simulate variable gravity environments to support the comparative study on the biological growth mechanism under different gravity conditions.

There will also be an airlock cabin in Wentian for extravehicular (EV) trips. The Shenzhou-14 crew will for the first time use the airlock cabin to exit the station and carry out EV activities that are scheduled to take place two to three times during their stay. The Wentian lab further features short-term living quarters for astronauts during crew rotations.

A 5-meter-long mechanical arm installed on Wentian will promote China's space station's construction and future operation. These types of smaller mechanical arms will eventually be the "star" components of Tiangong, said Lin Xiqiang, Deputy Director of the China Manned Space Agency, at a press conference in early June. 

The weight and length of the small mechanical arm are about half of those of the large one on the Tianhe core module, and loading capacity is about one eighth. Subsequently, the movements of the small arm are quite flexible and easier to control.

Meanwhile, the end of the small mechanical arm is more accurate in positioning, enabling it to perform operations with greater precision. The positioning accuracy of the small mechanical arm is five times that of the large one, and the altitude accuracy of the small arm is two times higher, Lin noted.

Huang Weifen, chief designer of the astronaut system of China's manned space program, introduced that the new crew will, in a first ever, be supported by the small mechanical arm when exiting the space station.

The Wentian lab module, along with its carrier rocket, has already been transported to the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in southern Hainan Province for assembly and testing.

Late-comer Mengtian is set to serve microgravity scientific research, covering basic physics, the physics of fluids, material science and combustion science.

Like the Shenzhou-13 crew members, the new trio will also conduct scientific experiments and live-stream classes to students on Earth.

They will also welcome the arrival of the Tianzhou-5 cargo craft, scheduled to dock with the core module in November and that of the Shenzhou-15 crewed spaceship, scheduled to dock in December.

Zhang Wanxin, deputy chief designer of China's manned space program's astronaut system said this will put to the test Tiangong's recycling and life support system. "We must make sure all basic life necessities are secured," she said.

(Print Edition Title: The Space Pace) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to 

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency   |   China Daily
CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860