China’s astronauts embark on a direct trip to their brand new space station
to their brand-new space station
Three Chinese National Space Administration astronauts were launched aboard a rocket from the Gobi Desert in the early hours Tuesday morning. They are currently on their way to China’s recently completed Tiangong station HTML1. Although another three astronauts were already aboard Tiangong since before it was completed, once docked the Shenzhou-15 mission trio will soon replace them for a six-month stay–the first crew swap-out for the station in what will be a continuously occupied, decade-long projected lifespan. As Space.com notes, “This will be a first for China, which has never supported two crews on the orbiting outpost simultaneously before.”
The launch represents a major milestone in the country’s literal and figurative ascendance as a space superpower, and comes barely two weeks after the successful launch of NASA’s unmanned Artemis I launch, the first in a series leading to Americans’ return to the lunar surface.
As reported by The New York Times and elsewhere, the newcomers will finish installing facilities and equipment aboard Tiangong in near-zero gravity as the station travels in low-Earth orbit roughly 240 miles above the planet’s surface. China plans to replace Tiangong’s astronauts every six month. They will carry out a variety of experiments and research in order to establish itself as a major spacefaring country. Among the first, is testing the effects of low gravity and space radiation on seed production and growth, as well as studying how spiders spin webs in free fall–similar to previous experiments conducted on the ISS. In the months and years to come, a rotating Tiangong team will conduct a variety of experiments.
Unlike other stateside NASA launches The New York Times reported a substantial level of military security around the event. No civilian or journalist photography was allowed, and those approaching the site were sent text messages beginning at 50 miles away, including one reading, “Those stealing secrets will surely be caught, and will be decapitated once caught! Everybody should catch enemy spies and make great contributions by seizing !”
Despite lofty aspirations to eventually travel to both the moon and Mars, China is currently pursuing those goals alone. NASA has prohibited cooperation with the nation since 2011 in response to human rights and security concerns, and China’s astronauts have never visited the International Space Station. The NY Times stated that European researchers are participating in a few experiments headed for Tiangong. One of these experiments includes a high-energy cosmic radio detector. The United Nations also offers experiment opportunities to teams from India, Mexico, Peru, and Saudi Arabia.
[Related: Why the SLS rocket fuel leaks weren’t a setback. ]
China’s space goals remain ambitious. They plan to mine near-Earth asteroid samples and Mars samples, as well land astronauts on the Moon by the end of the decade. By 2040, the country hopes to develop a nuclear-powered rocket–something many stateside are also working hard to achieve.
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