The astronauts returned to China’s space station

“New step” in occupying China’s space: three astronauts flew on Sunday for “Space of Heaven”, the station Beijing is building in orbit and should now be permanently occupied.

The spacecraft for their Shenzhou-14 mission was powered by the Long March 2F rocket, which flew at 10:44 am local time (0244 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert (northwest). Public broadcaster CCTV broadcast live footage from the launch.

A quarter of an hour later, an official from the space agency responsible for human spaceflight (CMSA) announced the “success” of the launch.

Like the previous crew of the Shenzhou-13 mission, which returned in mid-April, the three astronauts, including a woman, are expected to remain on the space station for about six months.

Named after the Chinese Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) but also known by its CSS acronym (for “Chinese space station” in English), it should be fully operational by the end of the year.

Among the crew was the notable Liu Yang, 43, who was the first Chinese woman in space (2012).

He will be joined by Chen Dong (43) and Cai Xuzhe (46), who will make his first flight into space after 12 years of preparation.

Main challenge for the Shenzhou-14 crew: the reception and installation of two new laboratory modules, which will be docked at the station.

They will launch from Earth in July and October. The latter will significantly increase the volume and size of the galaxy station.

“After successfully docking the modules, the crew will need to use a robotic arm to retrieve them, undock them, rotate them 90 degrees and dock them to another port. , ”said Go analyst Chen Lan. , which specializes in Chinese space programs.

– “A real test” –

These essential procedures need to be carried out in interaction with engineers on Earth.

“China has never conducted such a complex operation before, which only took place at Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). It will be a real test for the crew and equipment,” Chen Lan said.

Once these laboratory modules are installed, the overall structure of the station will have its final appearance, in the shape of a T.

It will be similar in size to the former Russian-Soviet Mir station. Its life span should be at least 10 years, even 15 years.

The Shenzhou-14 crew will also conduct spacewalks, conduct a series of experiments and maintain Tiangong.

New to this mission: for the first time, two Chinese crews will pass a baton into orbit at the station.

At the end of their stay, before returning to Earth, the three Shenzhou-14 astronauts will in fact spend several days in orbit with their three colleagues from the future Shenzhou-15 mission.

“At Shenzhou-14, Chinese manned spaceflight is taking a new step” in “starting permanent work of the station,” Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told AFP. UNITED STATES.

“In other words, from now on, the goal is always to have Chinese astronauts in space.”

– Space tourism –

China was pushed to build its own station because of its exclusion from the ISS, as the United States prohibits NASA from cooperating with Beijing.

The Asian giant has been investing billions of euros in its space program for decades.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. Since then, it has achieved some impressive achievements, especially in recent years.

At the beginning of 2019, it placed the device at the end of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it returned samples from the Moon and terminated Beidou, its satellite navigation system, a competitor to American GPS.

In 2021, he landed a small robot on Mars and plans to send men to the Moon by 2030.

In the longer term, China plans to offer space tourism, Zhou Jianping, the conductor of the Chinese manned program, said in March.


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