China launches three astronauts to its Tiangong-3 space station: Everything you need to know

China has launched three astronauts to its Tiangong-3 space station today, 17 June at 6.52 am IST (9:22 am Beijing time). A Long March-2F Y12 rocket was used to also launch the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft as well as the astronauts. The launch took place from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China’s Gobi desert. This is the first crewed mission to take place in five years and will be the longest Chinese crewed mission. It is being launched ahead of the Centurian celebration of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) which will be held on 1 July.

A Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying a crew of Chinese astronauts in a Shenzhou-12 spaceship lifts off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwestern China, Thursday, June 17, 2021. China has launched the first three-man crew to its new space station in its the ambitious programs first crewed mission in five years. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The Long March-2F Y12 carrier rocket is 58.34 meters long with a diameter of 3.35 meters. It has four 2.25 meters boosters and can send payloads weighing 8.6 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO). As per the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, this rocket has sent 11 astronauts to space since 1999 when it went on its first flight.

After the launch, the rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight and 10 minutes later, the upper stage separated and entered orbit. After making adjustments, it will dock with the space station at 1.30 pm IST (4.00 pm Beijing time).

Earlier, it used to take astronauts two days to reach China's previous stations but travel time has decreased significantly. This, Gao Xu, mission’s deputy chief designer said results from “a great many breakthroughs and innovations” Gao said.

He also said that they increased the number of automated and remote-controlled systems which should “significantly lessen the pressure on the astronauts,”

Usually very secretive about its space missions, China has been uncharacteristically candid about this mission.

Late to the space game, China believes its facilities are cutting edge. They are also only the third nation to independently send astronauts to space after Russia and the US.

The ISS is a collaboration between NASA (US), Roscomos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada). While China had shown interest in partaking in this global collaboration, its space agency and astronauts were banned by the US in 2011. MIffed, China has taken matters into its own hands and launched its own space station.

Recently, Ji Qiming of the CMSA said, "We are willing to carry out international cooperation with any country that is committed to the peaceful use of outer space."

About the space station

The Tiangong-3 or Heavenly Palace, is China's third space station. It has been placed in LEO somewhere between 340–450 km above the surface.

The Tianhe module will form the core of the space station, with other modules to be added later to increase the size of the station and make more experiments possible. Saggitarius A / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Construction of Tiangong-3 is supposed to happen by late 2022 and 10-11 missions have been planned to complete its construction in orbit. These missions will be a mix of crewed and uncrewed missions - Three mission to launching modules and four cargo and manned missions respectively.

The space station is expected to weigh around 59,874 kgs (66 tons) which is very compact as compared to the International Space Station (ISS) which weighs 4,20,000 kgs. It is more comparable to the American Skylab or the former Soviet Union's Mir. It is also expected to have a missions life of at least 15 years. ISS was launched in 1998 and is soon going to be decommissioned in 2024.

Tianhe or Harmony of Heavens is the core capsule and is 16.6 meters long, with a diameter of 4.2 meters. It is made up of three parts — a connecting section, a life-support and control section and a resources section. It is central to the space station's, science experiments and the astronaut's living quarters. It was launched on 29 April.

Tianzhou-2 was a cargo spacecraft that was launched on 29 May. It carried with it essentials like food, equipment and fuel.

China's space station has a robotic arm, similar to the Canadarm2. It can stretch to 15 metres and will help to build the space station, explained Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space engineering project.

"Astronauts will team up with the robotic arm to make in-orbit space station construction and maintenance possible", said Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut and Director of China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO).

But not everyone is happy about this arm. The US think it can be used for military purposes.

James Dickinson, commander of the US Space Command, told a congressional hearing in April that the technology “could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites" and was, therefore, a concern to the US military.

Also read: Chinese cargo spacecraft successfully docks with core space station module

About the astronauts

Three crewed mission will two veteran astronauts and one first-timer flier. The astronauts launching into space are Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo. They will help in constructing the space station. All three astronauts have some experience in the Chinese military. According to The Guardian, they had to undergo more than 6,000 hours of training to prepare for their mission.

Chinese astronauts, from left, Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming wave as they prepare to board for liftoff at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwestern China, Thursday, June 17, 2021. China plans on Thursday to launch three astronauts onboard the Shenzhou-12 spaceship who will be the first crew members to live on China's new orbiting space station Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Haisheng (56) is the oldest astronaut in China and is the mission commander. He was among the first generation of astronauts China selected to train in 1998. "I just want to go to space," he said before the Shenzhou-10 mission, CGTN reported. He has already gone to space on two spaceflight missions and has logged in 1,480 flight hours. His first mission was the Shenzhou-6 mission in October 2005 and his second mission was Shenzhou-10 in June 2013. He is also a decorated air force pilot in the People's Liberation Army. He was given the title of 'Hero Astronaut' after his second time-space.

Haisheng said he is fortunate to be among the first people to enter the space station. "We have the blessings of the people, the support of the staff and the skills learned from training," he said in a press conference. "I'm confident we can successfully carry out this mission."

The second astronaut and operator in the crew is Boming (54) who first flew to space during the Shenzhou-7 in September 2008. He is also part of the first batch of astronauts selected by China and has logged in 1,050 flight hours. like Haisheng, he too was also bestowed with the honorary title “Hero Astronaut.”

Before he became an astronaut, he wanted to be a military pilot after hearing about human spaceflights in high school. He was a fighter jet pilot in 1990 and is a major general in the People's Liberation Army.

"I have to stay longer outside of the cabin and carry out much more complicated jobs," he told reporters. "But we have gone through systematic training sessions and will wear our new-generation space suits. I have more confidence to finish my job than last time."

During selection from China's second batch of astronauts, five men and two women were selected. This was the first time Chinese women were selected as astronauts to take part in missions.

Global Times reported that Liwei said on a previous occasion, said that while there won't be any female astronauts in this mission, women will participate in future missions.

Chinese astronauts, from left, Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming wave during a press conference at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center ahead of the Shenzhou-12 launch from Jiuquan in northwestern China, Wednesday, 16 June 2021. Image credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The newbie and youngest member of the crew is Hongbo (45). He was selected in the second generation of astronauts in 2011. He has logged in 1,159 flight hours and this is his debut spaceflight.

"I have been preparing for the last decade," Hongbo said. "I hope I can spend my next decade contributing to the space station."

Hongbo admits he is nervous in a press conference. He said, "There's some pressure definitely. But I believe I can turn the stress into motivation."

Also read: China will soon have a monopoly on space stations as it begins construction of Tiangong

Astronauts work in space

After years of preparation, what will the astronauts work on in space? How will they spend the next three months?

The main part of the astronauts daily work will be to construct the space station, conduct spacewalks, test and maintain the systems and also undertake scientific experiments.

A woman wearing a face mask is silhouetted as she walks by a TV screen showing CCTV live telecast of the Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying a crew of Chinese astronauts in a Shenzhou-12 spaceship lifts off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, at a shopping mall in Beijing. Image credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

“Keeping the station up and running smoothly involves much detailed and complicated work, as we saw on the International Space Station during its early days,” Chen Lan, an analyst at GoTaikonauts, which specialises in China’s space programme told The Guardian.

Each of the astronauts will have their own living modules and a shared bathroom, dining area. They also have a common communication centre which they can use to send emails and have two-way video calls with ground control.

Liwei said, "Astronauts coming out of the cabin will become a new routine, and the duration of such activities will be greatly expanded."

They will have a variety of nutritious and tasty foods to choose from - about 120 different options which include shredded pork with garlic sauce and Kung Pao chicken. They also have access to "space treadmills" for entertainment during their stay, China's space agency said.

Also read: China begins building a three-person space station, first launch to take place soon

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