china rocket

Three astronauts board China’s fledgling space station for the first time

Image credit: reuters

Three Chinese astronauts have successfully boarded the Tianhe space station module, marking a milestone in the country's ambitious space programme.

Tianhe was launched into orbit on 29 April this year. It is the first piece of China’s modular Tiangong space station, which is to be expanded with additional module launches until late 2022.

Once completed, the space station will be roughly one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and is intended to reside in low-Earth orbit for use in scientific experiments.

The three astronauts – Tang Hongbo, Liu Boming and Nie Haisheng (pictured) – launched aboard the Shenzhou-12 craft which successfully connected with the Tianhe module about six hours after take-off from the Jiuquan launch centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The launch represents China’s first manned space flight since 2016, and the crew will live on Tianhe for three months, the longest time Chinese nationals have resided in low-Earth orbit.

During the stay in its main living compartment, the astronauts will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two additional modules next year.

With Nasa considering a 2024 retirement for the ISS, which is backed mainly by the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada, Tiangong could soon become the only functional space station in orbit around the Earth.

“At this current stage, we haven’t considered the participation of international astronauts, but their future participation will be guaranteed,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space programme.

“I’m aware that many countries have expressed their wish in this regard.”

The travel time to the station is down from the two days it took to reach China’s earlier experimental space stations, a result of a “great many breakthroughs and innovations,” the mission’s deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told the state broadcaster CCTV.

“So the astronauts can have a good rest in space which should make them less tired,” he added.

After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth prompting international criticism of the Chinese space programme – criticism that China largely dismissed.

Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after lift-off, normally over water, and do not go into orbit.

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