A new era begins as China launches a crewed mission to its space station

A new era begins as China launches a crewed mission to its space station

By Katie Hunt and Alex Stambaugh, CNN

(CNN) — Three astronauts lifted off to China’s nearly completed space station on Tuesday, marking the start of the country’s long-term presence in space.

It’s a major achievement for China’s ambitious space program, which has explored the far side of the Moon and Mars. The milestone also means that the aging role of the International Space Station as a single place of continued human occupation of Earth’s orbit is coming to an end.

The three astronauts launched aboard the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft at 11:08 p.m. local time (10:08 a.m. ET) Tuesday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. The Shenzhou-15 spacecraft is expected to dock with the Tiangong space station about 6.5 hours after launch.

The arrival of the three astronauts – Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu – will mark the first crew rotation on the space station, with two teams overlapping for five to 10 days before the crew of Shenzhou-14, which landed at the station in June. , returns to Earth.

The Shenzhou-15 mission will complete the construction of the orbital outpost, scheduled by the end of December, and launch the first stage of “its application and development”, said Ji Qiming, assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Agency, at a press conference on Monday, according to state media Xinhua.

During the mission, according to state media, the crew will also perform more than 40 experiments and tests in the fields of space scientific research, space medicine and space technology, as well as three to four extravehicular activities. – performed by astronauts in spacesuits.

Smaller than the ISS

Once construction is complete, the space station is expected to last 15 years. China plans to launch two crewed missions and two cargo missions to the station each year, according to CMSA.

Tiangong, which means heavenly palace, is smaller than the International Space Station but similar in modular design. The new space station will typically house three astronauts instead of six.

NASA officials have said they will retire the ISS, which is a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, in 2030.

However, Russia has threatened to leave the ISS from 2024, which would make operating the ISS difficult, said Dr Stefania Paladini, lecturer in economics and global security at Birmingham City University in the UK .

“There is no clarity on the future of the ISS after 2024. While the United States seems determined to extend its lifespan until 2030, Russia has threatened to withdraw its participation after that date, (which would make) extremely difficult to continue flying the ISS,” said Paladini, author of “The New Frontiers of Space: Economic Implications, Security Issues and Evolving Scenarios.”

“The Chinese Space Station could … end up being the only human presence in Earth orbit for quite some time.”

International cooperation

The new space station is expected to accommodate around 1,000 science experiments over its lifetime.

Most of the experiments aboard the Tiangong will involve research from China, but the country has invited international researchers to experiment, including on how cancerous tumors react to weightlessness.

Chinese astronauts have long been barred from the ISS, due to US political objections and legislative restrictions. However, the CMSA astronauts trained with their counterparts from the European Space Agency.

It is unclear whether China would welcome astronauts from other countries to its space station, but Molly Silk, a PhD student at the University of Manchester in the UK who specializes in China’s space programme, said she believed it was very likely that international astronauts would visit in the coming years.

“Several European astronauts have learned Chinese in order to better cooperate with their Chinese counterparts, which suggests that a visit to the CSS could be considered. Pakistan has also tried to coordinate with China to send its first astronaut into space. “, he added. she says.

“This project demonstrates to the world that China has both the vision and the capability to pull off such an immensely difficult feat. The CSS will not only allow China and other countries to conduct experiments in space, but acts as an important checkpoint for China’s proposed international moon research base.”

Debris Hazards

Earlier this year, the space station’s two laboratory modules – Wentian and Mengtian – docked alongside the main cabin of Tianhe, the main living space for astronauts.

Mengtian’s lab was launched by China’s massive Long March 5B rocket, the remains of which re-entered Earth’s atmosphere uncontrollably in early November.

It was the fourth uncontrolled reentry of a Long March 5B rocket since China’s space agency began flying it two years ago, as the vehicle was designed without the necessary equipment to head into a safe landing.

NASA officials have criticized China for taking unnecessary risks. However, Tuesday’s launch involved China’s smaller Long March-2F rocket, used for human spaceflight, which experts say is less likely to produce hazardous debris.

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