Three Chinese astronauts head tospend approximately three months in Tianhe’s main module. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft will be launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in northern China.
The launch is expected to occur at 9:22 a.m. local time on Thursday, which is equivalent to 6:22 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesday. Will we be able to continue? That is an open question. Chinese state media may broadcast a live broadcast of the launch, and we will post it here as soon as we know.
Why is flying with a crew so important? It is the first time in five years that China has sent “taikonauts” (Chinese astronauts) into space. The three taikonauts selected to travel on the flight are Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo. Haisheng has flown on two previous flights, while Boming has flown on one. This will be Hongbo’s first flight.
China’s last crewed launch took place on October 16. 17 of 2016 and docked to China’s last space station, Tiangong-2. That station no longer orbits Earth, after being deliberately exorbitant in July 2019.
In April, China began construction of its next-generation space station with. Two additional modules will be released in the next 18 months, but Tianhe is ready to be inhabited now. When complete, the station will provide a low-Earth orbit human outpost for China, allowing the country and partner countries to conduct science experiments for the next decade.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Ji Qiming of the China Manned Space Agency said the mission will seek to complete some main objectives related to the verification of key technologies:
- Long-term stays of astronauts in orbit
- Regenerative environment control and life support.
- Resupply of crew and materials
- Extra vehicular activities and operations
- Maintenance in orbit
Provided all goes well with launch, the new station will become the only other operational space habitat outside of the International Space Station. It will be about a quarter the size of the ISS when construction is completed in 2022. The upcoming Shenzhou 12 launch is the first of four manned flights to help build the station.
Why is China building a space station?
Space science and human spaceflight capabilities, mostly, with a healthy side of geopolitics.
The US Congress passed a law preventing US contact with China’s space program in 2011, effectively prohibiting China and its taikonauts and scientists from participating in missions to the ISS.
China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1, that same year. He operated just over four years before his service ended. China’s space program admitted that it lost control of the station in early 2016, and two years later it collapsed and landed in the Pacific Ocean. A tracking station, Tiangong-2, opened in 2016 and was deliberately exorbitant in 2019. Both provided a test bed for the new Chinese space station, which is simply called Tiangong.
The new station is expected to orbit about 230 miles above Earth, about 20 miles lower than the ISS, with the ability to move up and down in orbit as needed.
After the launch of Tianhe main module in April,, used to put Tianhe into orbit, and its descent back to Earth. Its out-of-orbit was out of control, raising concerns that it could crash again in a populated area of the planet. Fortunately, Earth contains many unpopulated areas, and the thruster crashed into the Indian Ocean, although not far from the Maldives.
The Long March 2F rocket is slightly different from the Long March 5B used in that mission, but there have been questions about China’s handling of the desorbitation process. One of the first questions journalists at the conference pressed Qiming on was how China was preparing for the Shenzhou 12 booster to return to Earth.
“The last stages of all kinds of launchers performing space station missions have been treated with passivation technology and will not explode in orbit and generate space debris,” said Qiming, who appeared to read from a prepared statement, via a translator.
“We are ready for broader international exchanges and cooperation with other countries on the problems of artificial spacecraft wreckage and space debris to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”
Watch the launch of Shenzhou-12
It is currently unclear if the launch of Shenzhou 12 will be televised. The Chinese space agency does not usually offer live broadcasts, although this may be changing. The Tianhe launch was carried out by CCTV and other Chinese state media services on YouTube. Once we get a link, we will launch it here.