Chinese astronauts ready for launch Friday on six-month space station flight

Chinese astronaut Ye Guangfu, commander Zhai Zhigang, and astronaut Wang Yaping meet Chinese media in a pre-launch press conference at the Jiuquan space center Thursday. Credit: CCTV

China’s first six-month human spaceflight mission, set to become a regular occurrence for the rest of the decade, is poised for launch Friday to kick off a trip to the country’s Tiangong space station.

Chinese officials unveiled the astronauts for the Shenzhou 13 mission Thursday, publicly naming commander Zhai Zhigang to lead the crew. He will be joined by veteran astronaut Wang Yaping, who became the second Chinese woman to fly in space in 2013, and first-time space flier Ye Guangfu.

The astronauts met with Chinese state-run media in a televised press conference Thursday at the Jiuquan space base, where the Shenzhou 13 mission is set for launch at 12:23:44 p.m. EDT (1623:44 GMT) Friday.

“All pre-launch preparations are in order,” said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency.

Shenzhou 13 is scheduled to fly to the space station for a six-month stay, exceeding the 92-day flight achieved by Shenzhou 12, the previous Chinese human spaceflight mission. Shenzhou 12’s three astronauts were the first to board the Tiangong space station in June, and they returned to Earth last month.

Zhai, a 55-year-old astronaut who holds the rank of major general in the Chinese military, will command the Shenzhou 13 mission. He previously logged nearly three days in orbit on the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008.

“After 13 years, I am going to set out for outer space again,” Zhai said. “I feel excited. I feel inspired. I also feel some pressure.”

He will be joined in the Shenzhou 13 crew capsule by astronaut Wang Yaping, 41, who will become the first woman to live aboard China’s Tiangong space station. Wang is the most experienced space flier on Shenzhou 13, with more than 14 days of spaceflight time on the Shenzhou 10 mission in 2013.

The third member of the Shenzhou 13 crew is Ye Guangfu, also 41. Ye is a pilot in the Chinese military, and will launch on his first trip to space.

Zhai said the most challenging part of the Shenzhou 13 mission will be its marathon duration.

“We need to stay in a weightless environment for six months,” he said through an interpreter. “So a big challenge to our physical and mental situation. We will, for sure, encounter some challenges in terms of physical and mental health, and also technical issues.

“The success of the mission depends on we three,” he said. “We shall have an unshaken resolve and fighting spirit.”

Chinese officials assigned Zhai and his crewmates to the Shenzhou 13 mission in December 2019, although the astronauts were not identified publicly until Thursday. The nearly two years of training brought the crew members closer together, Zhai said.

“For me, personally, this is a great challenge,” Ye said. “But I have every confidence to complete this mission successfully. The confidence comes from generations of astronauts and their efforts, it comes from the teamwork of all the astronauts.

“It also comes from my 11 years of hard work,” Ye said, referring to the time since he joined the Chinese astronaut corps in 2010. “I’m looking forward to this mission. I hope that I have the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of outer space from a new angle, and I can have a bird’s view of planet Earth. I also want to have a bird’s view of the great land of China.”

Wang said she dreamed of flying in space again after her 2013 flight.

“Very soon, the dream will come true because I will fly to outer space tomorrow, and this time we will be in a China-built space station,” she said.

Like all Chinese astronauts, the trio will blast off from Jiuquan on top of a Chinese Long March 2F rocket. The 191-foot-tall (58-meter) rocket, fueled by a toxic but stable mix of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants, will ferry the Shenzhou 13 spaceship into orbit in less than 10 minutes.

Ground teams at Jiuquan, located in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China, were loading the liquid propellants into the Long March 2F rocket Thursday.

The capsule will unfurl solar panels to generate electricity, then begin firing thrusters to catch up with the Tiangong space station more than 240 miles (390 kilometers) above Earth.. The rendezvous and docking will target the nadir, or Earth-facing, port of the space station’s Tianhe core module.

It will be the first docking with the nadir port. Shenzhou 12 docked with Tianhe’s forward port in June.

Two Chinese Tianzhou cargo ships are currently docked to the station’s forward and aft ports.

“Once Shenzhou 13 joins up with the Tianhe module, “the Chinese space station will operate will operate as a combination of four spacecraft: a core module, two cargo spacecraft, and one human spacecraft,” Lin said Thursday.


The Shenzhou 13 mission patch includes an illustration of the Tiangong space station in its configuration with the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at its nadir, or Earth-facing, docking port. Two Tianzhou cargo ships are seen docked to the forward and aft ports of the Tianhe core module. Credit: CMSA

In a press conference Thursday, Lin said the main objectives for the Shenzhou 13 mission include testing of technologies for the future assembly and expansion of the Tiangong space station. The Shenzhou 13 crew is trained to operate robotic arms outside the Tianhe core module, and they have practiced using remote control technology to manually dock visiting Tianzhou cargo ships.

The astronauts will head outside the space station two or three times during their half-year in space to ready the lab for the arrival of new permanent modules in 2022. Wang, who was a Chinese military pilot before joining China’s astronaut corps, will become the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk.

Zhai, Wang, and Ye will evaluate the living and working conditions inside the Tianhe core module. They will test out the station’s life support and exercise systems, and perform a range of scientific experiments, including investigations in space medicine and microgravity physics, according to Lin.

The astronauts will also speak to the Chinese public in science education and outreach activities. Wang is expected to give at least one science lecture to Chinese students during her time on the Tiangong space station.

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

With the two Tianzhou cargo ships docked, the Tiangong space station stretches to a length of more than 120 feet, or about 38 meters. The Tianhe core module has a width of about 14 feet, or 4.2 meters.

The Long March 2F rocket with the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft rolls out of the vehicle assembly building at Jiuquan on Oct. 7, beginning the journey to the launch pad. Credit: CMSA

Shenzhou 13 is the fifth of 11 missions in 2021 and 2022 to assemble the Tiangong space station.

The first section of the complex, Tianhe, launched in April on a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket. The Tianzhou 2 cargo ship launched in May, followed by the Shenzhou 12 launch the next month, and the Tianzhou 3 supply mission in September.

After the launch of Shenzhou 13, China plans six more missions in 2022, including the launch of the large Wentian and Mengtian laboratory modules to complete the initial assembly of the space station. Two more Tianzhou cargo ships and two Shenzhou crew spacecraft are also scheduled for launch in 2022.

Lin said Shenzhou 13 is the last mission of the “technology demonstration phase” of the Tiangong space station program. Assuming a successful Shenzhou 13 flight, Chinese officials will perform a “comprehensive system evaluation” before moving into the construction phase, which will include the launch and link-up of the new Wentian and Mention lab modules when the next Chinese crew, Shenzhou 14, is on-board the station next year.

Once the three modules are connected together, the Tiangong station will have a permanent mass of about 66 metric tons, approximately one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station. Visiting vehicles, such as Shenzhou crew ships and Tianzhou cargo freighters, will push the space station’s mass closer to 100 metric tons.

The Tianzhou 5 and Shenzhou 15 missions will launch late next year, beginning a regular rotation of crew and cargo ships to the Tiangong space station.

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