China launched its seventh manned spaceflight on Thursday morning, sending three astronauts to the core module of its permanent space station.
A 20-story-tall Long March 2F carrier rocket blasted off at 9:22 am at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China’s Gobi Desert, hurtling into the blue sky with the Shenzhou XII spacecraft on top of the gigantic rocket.
After about 10 minutes, the vehicle placed the 8-metric-ton spaceship in a low-Earth orbit about 390 kilometers above the ground.
General Xu Qiliang, a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission and the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Chinese military, along with other senior officials watched the mission’s launch at the Jiuquan center.
Shenzhou XII, which is carrying three astronauts – Major General Nie Haisheng, Major General Liu Boming and Senior Colonel Tang Hongbo, is set to rendezvous and then dock with the core module, named Tianhe, or Harmony of Heavens, in a matter of hours. Then the crew will float into the module and start their three-month mission inside the craft, the first, and central, section of China’s space station, named Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace.
The all-male crew is tasked with testing and verifying plans, technologies and equipment for crucial elements in the Tiangong station’s construction and operation, such as astronauts’ long-term mission arrangements, life-support system, in-orbit resupply, extravehicular activity as well as spacecraft maintenance and repair.
They are also assigned with carrying out other space tasks and experiments in Tianhe.
During this mission, astronauts are scheduled to conduct two extravehicular operations, popularly known as spacewalks, to use mechanical arms to install equipment and check Tianhe’s external condition.
Their work will enable the China Manned Space Agency to accumulate experience and check the capability, performance and compatibility of systems involved in the space station program to prepare for the next steps in its construction, said Ji Qiming, the agency’s assistant director.
Tianhe was lifted by a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on April 29.
The biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever constructed, Tianhe is 16.6-meter-long and has a diameter of 4.2 meters. The craft’s weight, at 22.5 tons, is equal to the combined weight of 15 standard-size automobiles. It has three parts-a connecting section, a life-support and control section, and a resources section.
The module will be central to the Tiangong station’s operations, given that astronauts will live there and control the entire station from inside. It will also be used to host scientific and technological experiments.
The craft is now connected with the Tianzhou 2 robotic cargo ship that was launched by a Long March 7 rocket from the Wenchang facility on May 29. The two crafts docked with each other the next day.
Tianzhou 2 is now containing packages of living materials and mission payloads for Nie and his crew members to use, and propellants that will be used to refuel the core module.
Based on project plans, the Tianzhou 3 cargo ship will be launched in September to dock with Tianhe and the next month, another three-crew team will fly with the Shenzhou XIII to the module to stay there for six months.
In 2022, two large space labs will be launched to connect with the core module. Moreover, two manned missions and two robotic cargo flights will be made that year to continue construction of the Tiangong station, which is scheduled to become complete and start formal operation around the end of 2022.
One of China’s most adventurous space endeavors, Tiangong will consist of three main components — a core module attached to two space labs — with a combined weight of nearly 70 metric tons. The entire station is set to work for about 15 years.
Upon its completion, Tiangong will be manned regularly by groups of three astronauts in periods lasting several months. During handovers to new three-astronaut groups, the station will accommodate up to six astronauts.
Source: China Daily
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