Three astronauts have entered China’s new Tiangong space station after traveling on the Shenzhou 12 aircraft for 6.5 hours and successfully docking with the station’s core module. It is the country’s first manned mission and the third of 11 planned launches to construct China’s first permanent station in space.
Commander Nie Haisheng first floated into the space station’s Tianhe core module, followed by astronauts Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo through hatches leading from Shenzhou 12.
The astronauts will spend the next three months testing systems on-board the station. After settling in, the first thing they did was to connect in-station WiFi to communicate with their families on Earth, surf the Internet, and control smart furnishing facilities through their specially designed mobile devices.
This time, the pilots will be living in a spacious 110-cubic-metre core module. That’s a big improvement on the 15-cubic-metre living space of the Tiangong 1 prototype space lab, launched 10 years ago to test out technologies for Tiangong.
The core module, which China launched in April, includes living quarters, a work area, a kitchen, dining and sanitation areas, as well as an exercise space with a treadmill and stationary bicycle. During their time at the station, the astronauts will perform two spacewalks, operate the lab’s robotic arm and conduct scientific experiments.
According to a joint announcement by the China Manned Space Engineering Office and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, nine projects from 17 countries will be carried ot at the Tiangong space station. Among these, the Shenzhou-12 crew will conduct cancer research coordinated from Norway. Meanwhile, the outside of the station features an Indian-developed telescopic spectrograph to study ultraviolet emissions coming from deep space, from the likes of exploded stars.
China is also open to hosting astronauts from other countries at Tiangong once the station is completed. Russia, for instance, has mentioned the possibility of sending its cosmonauts there. Ji Qiming, an assistant director with China’s human spaceflight agency, said at a conference: “it is believed that, in the near future, after the completion of the Chinese space station, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts flying and work together”.
An alternative to the ISS
China’s Tiangong is one of only two existing manned outposts in orbit. The other is the International Space Station (ISS), which is operated by Russia and the United States and has been in service for more than two decades. In the past, China has applied to participate in ISS missions but was declined due to a U.S law banning NASA from working with China in any space-related cooperation.
The exclusion from using the ISS, which has housed more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries, has prompted China to build a station of its own. China initiated a “three-step-strategy” in 1999 to first send people into space, then master space-walk techniques, and finally build a space station. Two decades later, the mission is almost complete.
All of the world’s major space agencies sent their congratulations on the milestone mission. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement: “Congratulations to China on the successful launch of crew to their space station! I look forward to the scientific discoveries to come.” Even space enthusiast Elon Musk didn’t miss out on the action, posting in Twitter: “Congratulations, this is a great achievement!”