The three Chinese astronauts docked early Wednesday with their country’s space station, where they will overlap for several days with the three-member crew already on board and expand the facility to the size of the ship. maximum size.
The docking with Tiangong station took place at 5:42 a.m. Wednesday, about six and a half hours after the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft launched its Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Tuesday night. .
The six-month mission, led by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the final mission in the station construction phase, according to the China Manned Space Administration. The station’s third and final module docked earlier this month, one of the final steps in China’s efforts to maintain a continuous crew presence in orbit. .
The Shenzhou-15 crew will spend several days working with the Tiangong station’s existing 3-member crew, who will then return to Earth after their six-month mission.
Fei, 57, is a veteran of the four-day Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005, the second time China sent a man into space. Deng and Zhang are making their first space flight.
The station has now expanded to its maximum size, with three modules and three spacecraft mounted for a total mass of nearly 100 tons.
Tiangong can accommodate six astronauts at a time, and the delivery process will take about a week. That marked the station’s first orbital crew rotation.
China has not said what additional work needs to be done to complete the station. Next year, they plan to launch the Xuntian space telescope, which, although not part of Tiangong, will orbit in sequence with the station and may occasionally dock with it for maintenance.
Without an accompanying spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons – a small part of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 465 tons.
With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only working space station if the International Space Station is decommissioned in the coming years as planned.
Although China’s manned space program has officially been in operation for three decades this year, it really got underway in 2003, when China became the third country after the US and Russia to launch a manned space program. people into space by their own resources.
The program is run by the ruling military wing of the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded almost entirely without outside support. The United States excluded China from the International Space Station because of military ties to its program, although China has engaged in limited cooperation with other countries’ space agencies.
China has also achieved success in unmanned missions: Its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the lesser-known far side of the moon.
China’s Chang’e 5 probe also returned Moon rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Earth. Mars.
Officials are reportedly considering a final crewed mission to the moon, though no timeline has been given, even as NASA pushes for its Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to send four astronauts fly around the moon by 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025.
While largely proceeding smoothly, China’s space program is also controversial. Beijing denies complaints that it has let rocket stages fall to Earth uncontrollably after NASA accused it of “failing to meet our responsible standards regarding space debris.” .” In that case, parts of the Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.
China is also believed to be developing an ultra-secret spaceplane, and its growing space capabilities feature in the Pentagon’s latest defense strategy, which says the program is part of China’s “comprehensive approach to joint war”.