Chinese astronauts arrive at new space station

They are part of the first manned Chinese space mission in over five years

Photo: EPA Chinese astronauts (L-R) Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng, and Liu Boming wave during a departure ceremony before the launch of the Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12

China has successfully launched its first manned space mission in five years on today, with three of its astronauts arriving at the country's nascent space station to finalise its construction.

Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo headed to the space station aboard a Long March-2F rocket that blasted off the launch site located in the Gobi Desert and just yet Chinese media reported that their spacecraft Shenzhou 12 successfully docked with the core Tianhe module of the space station.

The three-man mission is the third of 11 missions already planned by China to finish the construction of its very own space station. A core capsule has been sent the previous month in preparation for the construction. 

Now, the three Chinese spacefarers are set to spend three months in orbit - a record for Chinese "taikonauts" - and will use the time to help set up the space station, testing equipment and laying the foundation for longer stays in the future.

Since the flight programme is planned on a tight schedule, the next resupply flight set to launch in September. Then three more astronauts will follow in October. To complete the space station, two more laboratory modules, each weighing some 20 tons, will also be launched into space. Two more cargo flights and two manned missions are planned in 2022

Named Tiangong, which means "Heavenly Palace," the Chinese space station will be T-shaped and is expected to be completed by next year, according to Nikkei Asia. Tiangong is expected to have an operational lifespan of 15 years - this means that if the International Space Station (ISS) ceases to operate as is planned in the next few years, China will be the only country still operating a permanent outpost in space.

It is also intended to be 20% larger than the International Space Station and roughly around the same size as Russia's deorbited Mir Space Station, per Space.

Per Nikkei Asia, China has been kept out of the International Space Station since 2011 over technology transfer concerns. This, however, isn't the only space-related issue China has with the rest of the international community, particularly the US.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA has been banned by the US government from collaborating with China. Because of this, the Asian country has likewise been kept out of the Artemis Accords and the Artemis Project, which seeks to return humans to the moon in 2024. 

Despite (or because) its outer space-related conflicts with the US and the rest of the international community, however, China's space program has only grown over the years. In fact, experts claim that China is a very strong contender that can challenge the US in the 21st Century Space Race.

China is also said to be preparing to reach interstellar space by mid-century. The mission aims to reach 100 astronomical units from Earth by the end of 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. One astronomical unit is equivalent to the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

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