China has launched the first astronauts to its new space station. The three astronauts blasted off inside a Shenzhou spacecraft atop a Long March 2F rocket from north-west China at 2.22 am BST on 17 June, in the country’s first crewed mission since 2016. They are scheduled to stay there for three months, making it China’s longest crewed mission yet.
The first module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) launched in April, marking the beginning of a massive construction project in orbit. The Tianhe module will be the heart of the station, with living quarters for up to three astronauts, along with the station’s control centre, power, propulsion and life-support systems.
This 18-metre-long spacecraft will be joined by two other main modules with space for science experiments. The finished space station will be about one-quarter the size of the International Space Station (ISS). This year and next, China has planned 11 missions to finish building and stocking the CSS. A cargo spacecraft has already docked with Tianhe, carrying supplies for the astronauts now heading into orbit.
The CSS is China’s third and largest space station. The previous one, called Tiangong-2, fell to Earth in 2019. While in orbit, it was visited by a pair of astronauts for 30 days.
During their CSS mission, the three new astronauts have two planned spacewalks to install equipment on the outside of the spacecraft.
China’s previous space stations have lasted only a few years each, but the CSS is intended to be a more permanent fixture in orbit, operating for at least 10 years. Chinese astronauts aren’t allowed to visit the ISS because of US legal restrictions. The CSS will give them the capability to perform the same sorts of scientific experiments in orbit as ISS member states do, often focusing on how the space environment affects living organisms, the development of new materials and basic physics.
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