Three Chinese astronauts dock at space station

The trio blasted off in a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China's Gobi desert. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - Three Chinese astronauts on Sunday (June 5) docked at the country’s space station on a mission to complete its construction, state broadcaster CCTV said, the latest milestone in Beijing's drive to become a major space power.

The trio blasted off in a Long March-2F rocket at 0244GMT from the Jiuquan launch center in north-western China's Gobi desert, with the team expected to spend six months expanding the Tiangong space station.

The team is tasked with “completing in-orbit assembly and construction of the space station”, as well as “commissioning of equipment” and conducting scientific experiments, state-run CGTN said Saturday.

The spacecraft docked at the Tiangong station after about “seven hours of flight”, CCTV reported.

Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace”, is expected to become fully operational by the end of the year.

China’s heavily promoted space programme has already seen the nation land a rover on Mars and send probes to the Moon.

Shenzhou-14 mission commander Chen Dong, 43, and team mates Liu Yang, 43, and Cai Xuzhe, 46, all from China’s second cohort of astronauts, will live and work on the space station for six months before returning to Earth in December with the arrival of the Shenzhou-15 crew.

The trio will cooperate with the ground team to complete the assembly and construction of the  space station, developing it from a single-module structure into a national space laboratory with three modules – the core module Tianhe and two lab modules Wentian and Mengtian.

Former air force pilot Chen with Ms Liu, who became China’s first female astronaut in space a decade ago, and space mission debutant Cai, will oversee the rendezvous, docking and integration of Wentian and Mengtian with the core module.

They will also install equipment inside and outside the space station and carry out a range of scientific research.

“The Shenzhou-14 mission is a pivotal battle in the construction stage of China’s space station,” Mr Chen told a news conference in Jiuquan on Saturday.

“The task will be tougher, there will be more problems and the challenges will be greater.” The space station is designed for a lifespan of at least a decade.

The crew will work with the ground team to complete the rendezvous, docking and transposition of the two lab modules with the core module, said CMSA deputy director Lin Xiqiang at a press conference Saturday.

The Tianhe core module was launched in April 2021, and the Wentian lab module is set to be launched in July and Mengtian in October.

The Shenzhou-14 crew will also witness, during their stay in orbit, the Tianzhou-5 cargo craft and Shenzhou-15 crewed spaceship dock with the core module.

Then, they will live and work together with the Shenzhou-15 crew for multiple days.

Space ambitions

The world’s second-largest economy has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a permanently crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.

The country has made large strides in catching up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.

But under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s plans for its heavily promoted “space dream” have been put into overdrive.

In addition to a space station, Beijing is also planning to build a base on the Moon, and the country’s National Space Administration said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029.

China has been excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned Nasa from engaging with the country.

While China does not plan to use its space station for global cooperation on the scale of the ISS, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration.

The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although Nasa has said it could remain functional until 2030.

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