China’s Shenzhou 13 mission has successfully docked with its space station. The three-person crew will spend six months aboard the vessel, testing core technologies and conducting several experiments.
The crew launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province at roughly 18:23 (CAT) and docked with the Tianhe core module at 23:56, according to the China Manned Space Agency.
Shenzhou 13 or “Divine Vessel” is the second of four missions required to assemble the Tiangong Space Station. Construction began in April this year when Tianhe, the largest of the three modules that make up Tiangong, was launched into orbit.
The vessel, as large as a school bus, will act as the crew’s living quarters for half a year. Their six-month stay aboard Tianhe will be significantly longer than their predecessors, Shenzhou 12. That crew spent just three months on board, returning safely in September this year.
The mission commander for Shenzhou 13 is 55-year-old Zhai Zhigang, a veteran astronaut who conducted his first spacewalk in 2008. Zhai has achieved near-celebrity status in China, with the government granting him the honorary title of “Space Hero,” according to CNN. Zhai is joined by space flight rookies, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu, both 41 years old.
Wang is only the second Chinese female in space, the first since 2012, and she will be the first female Chinese astronaut to perform a spacewalk. Despite her age, the former air force pilot has forged a tenacious reputation for herself, according to Reuters.
The trio is tasked with a number of activities, including key technologies and robotics needed to assemble Tiangong, testing the onboard life support systems for future visitors, and conducting several scientific experiments.
Zhai said the most challenging aspect of his team’s stay in space will be the physical and psychological impact of spending such a significant time in zero gravity and in cramped conditions.
Dean Cheng, a senior researcher at the US-based Davis Institute of National Security and Foreign Policy, said that the rapid growth of China’s space activity was impressive considering China was relatively late to the space race. Chairman Mao once lamented that China could not even launch a potato into orbit!
When the crew returns to terra firma in April next year, China will not be idle for long. Between April and the Manned Space Agency’s 2022 deadline, six more missions will be needed to deliver the remaining two core modules, as well as supplies for the completed space station.