BEIJING (AP) — Three Chinese astronauts docked early Wednesday at their country’s space station, where they will nest for several days with the three-man crew already on board and expand the facility to its full size.
The docking at Tiangong Station came at 5:42 a.m. Wednesday, about 6 and a half hours after the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft exploded on top of a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Tuesday night.
The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last in the station’s construction phase, according to the Chinese manned space agency. The station’s third and final unit docked With the station launched earlier this month, it is one of the latest steps in China’s efforts to maintain a permanent crew presence in orbit.
The Shenzhou-15 crew will spend several days working with the current 3-man crew at Tiangong Station, who will then return to Earth after their six-month mission.
The 57-year-old Fei is a veteran of the 2005 Shenzhou 6 four-day mission, the second time China sent a person into space. Deng and Zhang make their first spaceflight.
The station has now expanded to its maximum size, with three modules and three spacecraft attached for a total mass of nearly 100 tons.
Tiangong can accommodate six astronauts at a time and delivery will take about a week. This marked the first orbital orbit of the crew.
China has not yet said what additional work will be required to complete the station. Next year, it plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit sequentially with the station and can dock with it occasionally for maintenance.
Without the spacecraft attached, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons — a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 465 tons.
With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still standing and operating if the ISS retires in the coming years as planned.
While China’s manned space program officially began three decades ago this year, it really began in 2003, when China became only the third country after the United States and Russia to send a human into space using its own resources.
The program is run by the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and has gone almost entirely without outside support. The United States excluded China from the International Space Station Because of its program’s military ties, though, China has engaged in limited cooperation with other nations’ space agencies.
China has also had important unmanned successes: its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the far, unknown side of the Moon.
The Chinese Chang’e 5 probe also returned moon rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.
Officials have reported studying a final manned mission to the moon, though no timeline has been provided, even as NASA continues its Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025.
While running smoothly for the most part, China’s space program has also generated controversy. Beijing has ignored complaints that it allowed the missile stages to fall to the ground unattended After NASA accused it of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding space debris.” In this case, parts of a Chinese missile fell into the Indian Ocean.
China is also said to be developing a top-secret space plane and its increased space capabilities feature in the Pentagon’s latest defense strategy, which said the program was a component of China’s “comprehensive approach to joint warfare.”
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