Three astronauts will be first to board new Chinese space station

The Shenzhou 12 crew is commanded by Nie Haisheng (center). Nie is joined by Liu Boming (right) and Tang Hongbo (left). Credit: Xinhua

Two veteran Chinese astronauts and a first-time space flier will be the first crew members to live and work aboard China’s new space station after launching Wednesday from a remote spaceport in the Gobi Desert.

Chinese officials announced the identities of the three-man crew — all experienced fighter pilots in the Chinese Air Force — for the Shenzhou 12 mission in a press conference early Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the scheduled launch from the Jiuquan space base in northwestern China’s Inner Mongolia region.

The launch aboard a Long March 2F rocket is scheduled for 9:22 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0122 GMT; 9:22 a.m. Beijing time Thursday), China’s space agency said in a statement.

About six hours later, the spacecraft will dock with the forward end of the space station’s Tianhe core module orbiting around 240 miles (390 kilometers) above Earth. After equalizing pressure, the astronauts will open hatches and enter the space station for the first time.

“All systems conducting the Shenzhou 12 mission have undergone a comprehensive rehearsal,” said Ji Qiming, assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Agency. “The flight crew is in good shape and all the pre-launch preparations are in order.”

Nie Haisheng, a 56-year-old veteran of two previous Shenzhou missions in 2005 and 2013, leads the three-man crew. Nie logged more than 19 days in orbit on his first two spaceflights.

The other two Shenzhou 12 crew members are Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo.

Liu, 54, participated in the first spacewalk for China’s space program on the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008. Tang is 45 years old and will make his trip into space on Shenzhou 12.

The three astronauts will spend about three months on the Tiangong space station, performing spacewalks, operating the lab’s robotic arm, and activating the Tianhe module’s living quarters.

The first element of the space station, the Tianhe core module, launched April 28 aboard a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket, China’s most powerful launch vehicle. An unpiloted cargo ship, named Tianzhou 2, launched May 29 and docked with the Tianhe core module eight hours later, delivering fuel, food and spacesuits for the Shenzhou 12 astronauts.

The Shenzhou 12 mission will mark the longest stay in space to date by Chinese astronauts. Shenzhou 12 will be China’s seventh crewed spaceflight since 2003, but the first since 2016.

The Tianhe core module and the Tianzhou 2 cargo ship are in a “stable status” and ready for arrival of the Shenzhou 12 crew, Ji said in a press conference.

Ground crews at Jiuquan planned to load storable hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants into the Long March 2F rocket ahead of launch Wednesday. The toxic propellant mixture will feed the rocket’s engines, which will produce about 1.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

A few hours before liftoff, Nie and his two crewmates will board the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft on top of the 191-foot-tall (58-meter) Long March 2F rocket.

Nie Haisheng, Shenzhou 12’s commander, trains for a spacewalk in a pool to simulate microgravity. Credit: Xinhua

The launcher will deliver the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft to a preliminary orbit less than 10 minutes after launch. The capsule will unfurl solar panels to generate electricity, then begin firing thrusters to catch up with the Tianhe core module. The rendezvous and docking is planned to be fully automated, according to Chinese officials.

After boarding the Tiangong space station, the Shenzhou 12 astronauts will unpack the Tianzhou 2 cargo ship docked at the core module’s aft port. The entire complex will stretch nearly 120 feet (about 36 meters) long.

There are more than 120 kinds of food staged at the space station for the Shenzhou 12 astronauts, officials said. The galley includes a device to heat food, a refrigerator, water dispenser, and a folding table.

While China’s space station is still under construction, the Tianhe core module already in orbit includes astronaut living quarters, medical equipment, a command and control element, and an airlock and exterior handrails for spacewalks. There are three sleeping compartments — one for each astronaut — and one toilet on the Tianhe core module, Chinese officials said.

The core module of the Chinese space station also has a treadmill and a stationary bicycle for astronauts to get some exercise.

The Shenzhou 12 astronauts will perform two spacewalks outside the Tianhe module during their three-month mission, and test out the space station’s robotic arm, Ji said

The crew will also test the space station’s regenerative life support system, which produces breathing oxygen through electrolysis and recycles urine to generate drinking water.

“This way, we have closed-loop resource to draw upon which can greatly reduce dependence on ground supplies, and of course increase the economic efficiency of the space station,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designed for China’s human spaceflight program.

The Shenzhou 12 astronauts are scheduled to return to Earth in September for a parachute-assisted landing in China’s Inner Mongolia province. The landing will target a new recovery zone near the Jiuquan spaceport.

Around the same time, China will launch Tianzhou 3, the station’s next cargo resupply ship.

Tiangong means heavenly palace in Chinese, while Shenzhou is translated as divine vessel. Tianhe means heavenly harmony, and Tianzhou means heavenly vessel.

China’s next crewed spaceflight, Shenzhou 13, is scheduled to launch in October, carrying three astronauts for a six-month mission in orbit, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

Next year, China plans six more launches to support the space station program. Two Long March 5B rockets will boost the Wentian and Mengtian lab elements to dock with the Tianhe module, completing assembly of the three-segment, T-shaped space station.

China’s Shenzhou 12 spacecraft, perched on top of its Long March 2F rocket, rolls to a launch pad at the Jiuquan space base in northwestern China. Credit: CASC

There are also two more cargo spacecraft and two more Shenzhou crew capsules scheduled to launch to the space station in 2022.

The fully-assembled Chinese space station outpost will be around 66 metric tons, about one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station, and closer in size to Russia’s retired Mir station. With cargo and crew vehicles temporarily docked, the Chinese station’s mass could reach nearly 100 metric tons, officials said.

China launched two Tiangong prototype space labs in 2011 and 2016 to test out technologies for the permanently-occupied space station. The Tiangong 1 space lab hosted two Shenzhou crews in 2012 and 2013. China’s most recent human spaceflight mission — Shenzhou 11 — docked with the Tiangong 2 module in 2016.

In total, China has launched 11 astronauts into orbit on six crewed Shenzhou missions since 2003.

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