China set to catch up with the West on the length of human stays in space

While six-month stays on the International Space Station are common, China has so far failed to match that length. But that will change with the Shenzhou 13 mission.

She had been expected for several weeks. China’s new manned space mission now has a launch date and is just around the corner: it will be Saturday, October 16 at 12:24 a.m. (local time). This will be the second manned space mission to be conducted by the Middle Empire in 2021, after a long period of inactivity – previous flights are prior to 2017.

The crew that is about to leave in two days is made up of three people: Zhai Zhigang, Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping. Two men and a woman. Only one of them has never left the Earth’s atmosphere. This is Ye Guangfu. The other two have already participated in previous operations, but of rather modest durations – almost three days for one, fourteen days for the other.

Thus, Wang Yaping is a taikonaut who has already had the opportunity to take a little trip in space for a little over 14 days with the flight Shenzhou 10. At the time, it was a question of occupying the whole. China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, which has now disappeared. For his part, Zhai Zhigang led a mission of nearly three days in 2008, during which he was able to carry out a spacewalk.

A record time in space for China

The mission that opens for this crew is however very different, if only by its duration. This involves maintaining in space, inside the Tiangong-3 space station, three taikonauts for a six-month mission. This is a considerable period, which China has never yet been able to test. If successful, it will align with the length of current stays on the International Space Station (ISS).

It turns out that the Middle Empire has already prepared the ground with the Shenzhou 12 mission. During this journey, three taikonauts stayed in Tiangong-3 for three months, which allowed them to accumulate a first experience of a lasting presence in space. This is a huge leap for the Chinese space program, as all other Shenzhou missions never went beyond two weeks.

During the six months in space, the three members of the Shenzhou 13 crew will be required to perform scientific experiments, but also to continue assembling the space station. Some highlights are to be expected, with the spacewalk around Tiangong-3. Their return to Earth is scheduled for the beginning of 2022, in April.

Rendered to scale of the large modular Chinese space station. // Source: Wikimedia/CC/Saggittarius A

Currently, Tiangong-3 station is experiencing periods of vacancy, as there is not always a crew on board – whereas in the case of the ISS, rotations are conducted in such a way that there is always crowded, sometimes too many for that matter. However, the station remains under the control of the Chinese space agency and has automatic functions.

Upstream of Shenzhou 13, China launched a Long March 7 rocket on September 20 from the Wenchang launch base located on the island of Hainan, in the south of the country. This mission, called Tianzhou-3, consists in supplying Tiangong-3 for the benefit of the three taikonauts who arrive. It was an unmanned flight containing several tons of food and equipment.

The completion of the space station is scheduled for 2022. In all, eleven rotations are scheduled. There are still two Tianzhou missions in the spring and fall of 2022 and two manned Shenzhou missions. The schedule follows a precise outline: first the sending of an unmanned cargo ship to equip the station then a manned flight, about a month later.

Tiangong has only one module so far, but two more are due in 2022. The other two parts, called Wentian and Mengtian, will be laboratories to conduct research in a microgravity environment, which China can not do in the ISS, for lack of being able to access it – geopolitical reasons explain this exclusion.

Tiangong can normally accommodate three people, where the ISS has already been able to make room for more than ten people. It is the third Chinese space station, after two initial trials of smaller size. They were operational between 2011 and 2018 for one and between 2016 and 2019 for the other. When completed, Tiangong will display a dimension similar to the former Soviet Mir station. She will serve for 15 years.

Look at the world from space

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