BEIJING (AP) — Three Chinese astronauts docked early Wednesday morning with their country’s space station, where they will spend several days overlapping with an already three-member crew to expand the facility to its maximum capacity.
The Shenzhou-15 spacecraft docked with the Tiangong station at 5:42 a.m. Wednesday, about 6 1/2 hours after it blasted off from the Jiuquan satellite launch pad Tuesday night on a Long March-2F carrier rocket.
The six-month mission by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, led by Fei Junlong, will be the last in the station’s construction phase, the Chinese manned space agency said. The third and final block of the station was added With the launch earlier this month, it is one of the last steps in China’s effort to maintain a stable crew presence in orbit.
Shenzhou-15’s crew will work with Tiangong Station’s current 3-member crew for several days before returning to Earth after a six-month mission.
Fei, 57, is a veteran of the four-day 2005 Shenzhou-6 mission, China’s second manned space flight. Deng and Zhang build their first space planes.
The station has now expanded to its maximum size, combining three modules and three spacecraft weighing a total of nearly 100 tonnes.
Tiangong can accommodate up to six astronauts at a time and the handover takes about a week. This marks the crew’s first orbit around the station.
China has yet to say what additional work is needed to complete the station. Next year, Xuntian plans to launch the Space Telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit the station in tandem and occasionally dock with it for maintenance.
Without the attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons — part 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 will one day be the only space station still operating if the International Space Station retires in the coming years as planned.
Although China’s crewed space program is officially three decades old this year, it truly began in 2003, when China became the third country after the United States and Russia to send a man into space using its own resources.
The program is run by the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, and runs almost entirely without outside support. US excludes China from International Space Station Although China has limited cooperation with other countries’ space agencies because of its program’s military ties.
China has also racked up uncommissioned mission successes: its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the Moon.
China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar 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 are considering a final mission to the moon, though no timeline has been given, although NASA is pushing ahead with the Artemis lunar exploration program, which aims to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans in early 2025.
While for the most part going smoothly, China’s space program has also caused controversy. Beijing rejected complaints that it had allowed rocket stages to fall unchecked to Earth After accusing NASA of “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” Meanwhile, parts of the Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.
China is reportedly developing a top-secret space plane and its incremental space capability feature in the latest Pentagon defense strategy, part of China’s “holistic approach to collective warfare.”
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