By SudOuest.fr with AFPfr
China to send first crew of three astronauts to space station under construction
Chinese back in space: More than four years after its last manned mission, China will send three astronauts to its space station under construction. In the context of tensions with the West, the success of the mission is a matter of prestige for Beijing, which is preparing to celebrate the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1.
According to the latest forecasts, it is Thursday that the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, powered by a Long-March 2F rocket, should take off from Jiuquan Base in the Gobi Desert (northwest). Its purpose: to dock with Tianhe (“Celestial Harmony”), the station’s only module already in space. The control center and home for the astronauts, it was placed in low Earth orbit (at an altitude of 350–390 km) in late April.
The three astronauts will remain in space for three months, a record period for China. Its previous manned mission, Shenzhou-11, in late 2016, lasted only 33 days. “The goal of the astronauts will be to have their new home in space equipped and ready for use,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States.
“The mission’s objective is above all practical. It will not be revolutionary in its content.”
In three months, the astronauts will not be idle: maintenance, equipment installation, spacewalks, preparation for the upcoming construction mission and future crew stays. “In short, a lot of complex and complicated tasks,” said Chen Lan, analyst at GoTaikonauts.com. For that, Shenzhou-12 presents “many challenges” for a crew that “will have to familiarize themselves with the new equipment very quickly”.
“This is a new station, so the risk is that a major system breaks down. But I think it will be fine,” McDowell says.
Named in English CSS (for “Chinese Space Station”) and Chinese Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), the station will, upon completion, be similar in size to the former Soviet station Mir (1986–2001). Its age will be at least 10 years.
The Shenzhou-12 mission is the third of 11 launches that will be required for the station’s construction between 2021 and 2022. A total of four manned missions are planned.
In addition to the already existing Tianhe, the two remaining modules (which will be laboratories) are expected to be sent into space next year. These would make it possible to conduct experiments in biotechnology, medicine, astronomy or space technologies.
If Wang Yaping, the second Chinese in space, was approached to be part of Shenzhou-12 sometime, it would be the three people who would eventually form the crew – as yet unknown.
However, women will take part in the following missions, said Yang Liwei, the first Chinese to go to space in 2003 and now the senior man in charge of the human space program.
If non-Chinese astronauts, especially Europeans, might one day stay at CSS, there’s little chance of seeing an American there: a US law prohibits NASA from any links with China.
“The people who planned the ISS (under US command) and the CSS (Chinese) did not plan for this Sino-American rivalry, which has almost become a reality today,” notes Chen Lan. “But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Fair and healthy competition will benefit both countries and humanity.”
Asian giants have been investing billions of euros for several decades to catch up with other space powers.
In May China became the second country in the world after the United States to develop a small robot on Mars – baptized “Zurong”. The rover has already sent several pictures of the Red Planet, including a surprise “selfie” last week.
Among other achievements, China landed a machine on the far side of the Moon in early 2019 – a world first. Last year, it brought back lunar samples and finalized Beidou, its satellite navigation system (a competitor to American GPS).
Looking ahead, Beijing plans to send humans to the Moon (around 2030) and build a base there with Russia.