With three taikonauts successfully docking the under-construction space station in microgravity, China’ longest-running space mission has officially commenced. The three astronauts will stay on the flying outpost for six months as they conduct several experiments, spacewalk and ready the station for future use.
The astronauts, two men and a woman, were seen floating around the module before speaking via a live-streamed video. The new crew includes Wang Yaping, 41, who is the first Chinese woman to board the Tiangong space station and is expected to become China’s first female spacewalker.
The mission commander is Zhai Zhigang, 55, from China’s first batch of astronaut trainees in the late 1990s. Born to a rural family with six children, Zhai carried out China’s first spacewalk in 2008. Shenzhou-13 is his second space mission.
“We’ll co-operate with each other, carefully conduct manoeuvres, and try to accomplish all tasks successfully in this round of exploration of the universe,” said Wang in the video. The China Manned Space Agency said that the three astronauts entered the station’s core module at about 10 am.
During their six-month-long stay, the crew will do three spacewalks to install equipment in preparation for expanding the station, assess living conditions in the Tianhe module, and conduct experiments in space medicine and other fields. Shenzhou-13 is the second of four crewed missions needed to complete the space station by the end of 2022. During the first crewed mission that concluded in September, three other astronauts stayed on Tianhe for 90 days.
China began constructing the space station in April with the launch of Tianhe – the first and largest of the station’s three modules. Slightly bigger than a city bus, Tianhe will be the living quarters of the completed space station. When completed with the addition of two more sections — named Mengtian and Wentian — the station will weigh about 66 tons, much smaller than the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tons.
Two more Chinese modules are due to be launched before the end of next year during the stay of the yet-to-be-named Shenzhou-14 crew.
Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry last week renewed its commitment to cooperation with other nations in the peaceful use of space. Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said sending humans into space was a “common cause of mankind.” China would “continue to extend the depth and breadth of international cooperation and exchanges” in crewed spaceflight and “make positive contributions to the exploration of the mysteries of the universe,” he said.
After the crew returns to Earth in April, China plans to deploy six more missions, including deliveries of the second and third space station modules and two final crewed missions. China has launched seven crewed missions with a total of 14 astronauts aboard — two have flown twice — since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a person in space on its own.
The new station is being seen as an alternative to the ageing International Space Station (ISS) from which China was excluded, largely due to US objections over the Chinese program’s secretive nature and close military ties, prompting it to launch two experimental modules before starting on the permanent station.
Other Chinese space programs call for collecting soil from an asteroid and bringing back additional lunar samples. China has also expressed an aspiration to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.