HELSINKI — China’s Shenzhou-14 manned spacecraft docked with the Tianhe Space Station’s module early Sunday, marking the start of a crucial six-month mission.
Shenzhou-14 completed a rapid automated rendezvous and docking with the Tianhe module at 5:42 am EST on Jun 5, marking the safe arrival of astronauts Chen Dong (commander), Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe.
The Long March 2F rocket carrying Shenzhou-14 and the three astronauts lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 10:44 p.m. on Eastern Saturday. Just under seven hours after liftoff from the Gobi desert, the spacecraft completed docking at the nadir, or earth-facing port, of the Tianhe docking hub.
The cargo ship Tianzhou-4 is also docked to the 16.6 meter long Tianhe with a diameter of 4.2 meters. started Maywhich contains supplies for the crew as well as fuel, science experiments and a number of CubeSats.
The Shenzhou-14 mission will pilot the arrival of two new 20-ton+ modules to the space station, Wentian and Mengtian, in July and October, respectively.
“During the six months, we will be very busy,” Liu, who became China’s first woman in space in 2012, said at a press conference ahead of the launch on Saturday. The astronauts were separated from the media by a screen due to quarantine procedures.
“We will be converting our space station from a single module to a three-module, three-spacecraft complex during which three will be nine combination formations, five dockings, three launches and evacuations, and two position changes.”
The missions envisage the completion of the three-module T-shaped space station Tiangong, a project initiated back in 1992.
Tianhe was started in April 2021 and has so far hosted two manned missions, Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13, supported by the Tianzhou-2 and Tianzhou-3 logistics missions, respectively.
“We will enter Wentian and Mentian lab modules for the first time,” Liu said. “We will perform activities outside the vehicle using an airlock and a robotic forearm and perform the combined operation of the [Tianhe] big arm and [Wentian] handgun.”
The crew will also conduct a large number of science experiments and hold science outreach events, Liu added.
Chen, 43, flew into space for the first time in 2016 on the month-long Shenzhou-11 mission to the Tiangong-2 test lab. Liu, 43, flew on Shenzhou-9 to visit Tiangong-1, while Cai, 46, is boarding his first mission.
The new airlock cabin at Wentian, once active, will become the primary exit and entry point for Extravehicular Activities (EVAs). The Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou-13 Crews have previously used Tianhe’s docking hub for Eve Entrance and exit.
China’s first manned space mission, Shenzhou-5, entered orbit in October 2003. Shenzhou-14 is only the ninth manned mission launched by China in nearly two decades, but the country is now committing to six-month missions to the Tiangong Space Station for at least a decade.
Shenzhou-14 will be handed over to the Shenzhou-15 mission, which is expected to launch in December, when Tiangong will briefly host six astronauts for the first time.
Tiangong is expected to operate in orbit for at least ten years. It could be expanded to six modules and accommodate international astronauts.
China is also considering making the station available to tourist visits and opens Tiangong to commercial missions.
The country also plans to launch a coorbital optical telescope module called the Xuntian in late 2023. It will be able to dock with Tianhe for repairs, maintenance, refueling and upgrades, and aims to survey 40 percent of the sky over a decade.
Xuntian has an aperture two meters in diameter and a field of view more than 300 times larger than that of the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.
Russian officials have expressed interest in deepening cooperation with China on human spaceflight and have threatened to end its involvement in the International Space Station.
However, the 41.5-degree tilt of the Tiangong space station makes it very difficult for a Soyuz to launch from Russian territory to Tiangong, while ESA’s Kourou rocket, which was considered for manned Soyuz missions, did not serve Russia thereafter available is his invasion of Ukraine.