On Thursday June 17th, China took another important step in its quest to become a superpower in space. Just two months after the core module of the Tiangong space station (literally “Heavenly Palace”) was sent into orbit, the three astronauts, who will be the station’s first crew, took off into space. The mission, Shenzhou 12, lifted off on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 9:22 p.m. local time (9:22 a.m. EDT; 6:22 a.m. PDT) on Wednesday evening.
The launch, the seventh manned mission of the Shenzhou spacecraft and the first manned expedition to the new space station, was broadcast live on the state broadcaster CCTV. According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), the launch was a complete success, with the spacecraft separating from the rocket 573 seconds later and entering orbit to hit the station.
About six and a half hours later, at 3:54 a.m. EDT (12:54 p.m. PDT), the spacecraft successfully docked with the Tianhe core module and the three astronauts – Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo – entered the station. As the CMSEO reported shortly thereafter:
“After the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft successfully completed a rapid automated rendezvous and docked with the core module of the orbiting Tianhe space station, the Shenzhou-12 crew entered the orbital module from the re-entry module. After a series of preparations as programmed, the hatch of the core module opened and on June 17, 2021 at 6:48 p.m. (Beijing time), astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo entered the Tianhe module one after the other. The crew will carry out the relevant work as planned. “
The crew will spend the next three months aboard the Tiangong Space Station, where they will participate in a series of orbital scientific operations. This includes performing extravehicular activities (EVA), also known as. “Space walks” in suits supplied by the Tianzhou 2 mission. You will also test the station’s large robotic arm and review the module’s regenerative life support system.
The Tianhe module (literally “harmony of the sky” in Chinese) provides propulsion, guidance, navigation and orientation control as well as the station’s power supply and life support systems. It also includes a living space for its three crew members measuring 50m3 (compared to 15m for Tiangong-1) with beds, a kitchen and toilet, computers and equipment for scientific experiments and communication with the ground.
Tianhe’s design also includes multiple ports to accommodate the Shenzhou spacecraft and other modules to be integrated over time. The module also has two robotic arms, the smaller of which measures 10 m (33 ft) and is intended for remote station operation. The big robotic arm – aka. “Chinaarm” (such as “Canadarm”, “Canadarm2” and “Canadarm3”) is similar to the Lyappa arm that is used by Mir.
It is this arm that will be used to attach future modules to the two ports at the end of Tianhe’s long axis, gradually expanding the station and allowing a more diverse range of scientific operations. The proposed future modules include two Laboratory Cabin Modules (LCMs) – “Wentian” and “Mengtian” – which provide additional navigation, avionics, and backup propulsion and orientation controls.
The Wentian and Mengtian modules are currently scheduled to start between May-June and August-September 2022 (each). As soon as they are integrated and ready for use, the crews of the station can carry out scientific experiments in a microgravity environment, which here on earth (in simulated microgravity) is only possible for a few minutes.
Experiments will also be placed on the outside of the fuselage to measure the effects of exposure to the space environment, vacuum, cosmic rays and solar winds. These are similar to the research currently being carried out on board the International Space Station (ISS), the aim of which is to find out how humans will deal with space radiation and microgravity during long-term missions to space, the moon and Mars.
On the morning of Wednesday June 23, the crew spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was speaking to them from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center. On the same day, the CNSA also uploaded a video showing the daily operations of the crew on the station during the first week (see below). This essentially consisted of preparation for the various operations that will be performed later.
The Shenzhou 12 mission is the third of eleven launches that will culminate with the construction of the three-module station. As the third and final tranche of the Tiangong program, this station is set to compete with the ISS, which is scheduled to expire in 2024 (although the mission may be extended to 2028). The program is one of many designed to promote China’s presence in space and influence abroad.
Further reading: Phys.org, Space News