Three Chinese astronauts have successfully blasted off into space aboard the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft. This is what they will call the home for the final six months of its construction.
During their 180-day stay, the astronauts will conduct several experiments and oversee the rendezvous and docking of two crewless modules later this year.
The launch took place in the Gobi Desert in the sparsely populated northwest of China at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in early June. Televised by state media, China’s space programme is a source of a great deal of pride to many of its people.
Twenty-five-year-old social media developer Zanna Zhang said she had fond memories of the Shenzhou-5 mission as a student. Witnessing another successful launch gave her confidence in China’s push to become a competitive space power, she told Reuters in an interview.
The mission is led by commander Chen Dong, a former air force pilot and spaceflight veteran. Chen will be accompanied by seasoned astronaut, Liu Yang, who made news in 2012 when she became China’s first woman in space during the Shenzhou-9 mission. The trio is rounded out by rookie pilot, Cai Xuzhe, a graduate of China’s 2010 cohort of astronauts.
Chen described Shenzhou-14 as pivotal to realising the ambitions of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), speaking with the press before the launch.
The crew is tasked with installing equipment to both the inside and outside of the Tianhe core module by the time the station is ready to receive and host its next visitors. Chen and his team’s primary goal is to coordinate the docking of two modules, Wentian and Mengtian.
The Wentian module is laden with equipment to conduct life science research and is scheduled to rendezvous with the crew in July, according to Reuters. Wentian also features an air-lock cabin crucial to conducting any extra-vehicular activities and a set of short-term living quarters used during astronaut crossovers.
In October, the Mengtian module will be received. Mengtian will essentially function as the station’s onboard laboratory. The pressurised environment will allow the crew to conduct experiments on several subjects pertaining to gravity, otherwise impossible to attempt on Earth.
Although the T-shaped space station is only capable of hosting three occupants at a time, the CNSA has extended invitations to international astronauts to visit the station and collaborate with foreign space programs.
The current three-module configuration can be extended into a four-module, cross-shaped platform, an engineer who worked on the Tiangong station told the media.