China on Monday launched two astronauts into space on a spacecraft that will dock for a month with a new experimental space station in a giant leap for the country’s space programme.
The Shenzhou 11 mission, China’s sixth manned spacecraft, took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in inner Mongolia in northern China at 7.30 a.m. (2330 GMT) aboard a Long March-2F carrier rocket. It will dock with the Tiangong-2 — “Heavenly Palace” — space station module.
The two astronauts will remain aboard for 30 days in preparation for the start of operations in six years.
The two male astronauts (taikonauts or Chinese astronauts) on board are — Jing Haipeng, 49, who has already been in space twice, and 37-year-old Chen Dong.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his congratulatory message, said the Shenzhou-11 mission with Tiangong-2 “marks a new milestone in our manned space flight mission in China.”
Jing Haipeng, who is flying his third mission, will turn 50 during his time in space.
“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” Jing told a briefing on Sunday.
Gen. Zhang Youxia, chief commander of China’s human space programme, declared the launch of Shenzhou-11 “a complete success”.
Tiangong-2 is China’s second experimental space station module, an upgraded habitat with improved life support systems, power, communications and research equipment.
The current US-led International Space Station is expected to retire in 2024, which means that China will be the only nation left with a permanent presence in space.
During the 30-day mission, Jing and Chen will carry out a number of medical and space science experiments, as well as test various systems on the Tiangong-2 module, Xinhua news agency reported.
According to Space Flight Insider, the Shenzhou-11 crewed vehicle has a mass of about 8.1 metric tonnes and is composed of an orbital module, a return module, and an engineering module. Although developed indigenously by China, the spacecraft’s design is based on the Russian Soyuz capsule.
The two-person crew will probably return to Earth on November 14.
Shenzhou-11, together with Tiangong-2, will bring the nation closer toward building its own permanent space station. They will enable testing of key technologies before sending a larger module into orbit. That station is expected to be built sometime between 2018 and 2022.
“With the establishment of its own space station, which is expected around 2020, China will carry out manned space missions on a regular basis, with spacecraft launched several times a year, instead of once every several years,” Space Flight Insider quoted Zhang Yulin, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of China’s manned space programme as saying.
According to a Russian space expert, Alexander Zheleznyakov, manned space missions could help push the development of other industries, especially high-tech ones, as space projects involve new materials, advanced application programmes and innovative technical solutions, including cutting-edge results in many areas, Xinhua reported.
Another prominent Russian space expert, Igor Lisov, said with the achievements made, China could now test technologies for cargo spacecraft docking, life support system operation and water recycling, among others, so as to ensure a long-term continuous operation of its space station in future with less dependence on replenishment from the Earth.
Shenzhou-11 was developed to support China’s manned spacelift programme.
The first Shenzhou spacecraft was sent into space in November 1999. It was an unmanned automated test flight, as were the next three Shenzhou missions conducted between January 2001 and December 2002.
The Shenzhou-5 mission, launched in October 2003, was China’s first crewed spaceflight. The spacecraft sent Yang Liwei into orbit for about 21 hours, making him the first Chinese national to fly into space.
Originally proposed by the Shanghai Astronautics Bureau, the Project 921-1 — the first name of the Shenzhou project — was revamped in 1994 following former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit to Russia, which led to a 1995 agreement to transfer Russian manned space technology.
China later purchased a Russian Soyuz space capsule, life support, space suits, docking technology and astronaut training. For its November 20, 1999, test flight, Jiang renamed the Project 921-1 space capsule the “Shenzhou” or “Divine Vessel”.
On October 13, 2003 People’s Daily stated: “Manned spacecraft can carry out missions of reconnaissance and surveillance better and enable the military to deploy, repair, and assemble military satellites that could monitor and direct and control military forces on earth.”
In March 2005, an asteroid was named 8256 Shenzhou in honour of the spacecraft.