China successfully launched three astronauts to its Tiangong space station on Tuesday, marking a significant milestone as it aims to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030. Notably, this mission included a civilian astronaut, marking the first time China has sent a non-military individual into orbit.
In an effort to close the gap between the United States and Russia, the second-largest economy in the world has allocated billions of dollars towards its military-led space program.
At 9:31 am (0131 GMT), the Shenzhou-16 crew launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China. The launch was carried out atop a Long March 2F rocket, as witnessed by AFP journalists.
According to Zou Lipeng, the director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, the launch was a “complete success” and the “astronauts are in good condition.”
Scores of space program workers, a significant number of whom reside on the expansive premises throughout the year, were present at the launch event. They took photographs of themselves with the rocket in the backdrop.
Excitement filled the air as children eagerly awaited the launch, waving Chinese flags while perched atop their parents’ shoulders.
The rocket was sent off in a cloud of ochre smoke as spectators let out a loud “wow”, shouting “good luck” and waving.
Commander Jing Haipeng, who is on his fourth mission, is leading a crew that includes engineer Zhu Yangzhu and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao. Notably, Haichao is the first Chinese civilian to venture into space.
China’s space program has achieved a significant milestone by becoming the third country to successfully launch humans into orbit. The crown jewel of their space program is the Tiangong, which has been instrumental in their space exploration efforts. Additionally, China has also successfully landed robotic rovers on both the Moon and Mars.
According to authorities, the Shenzhou-16 mission marks the first visit to Tiangong since it entered its “application and development” phase.
The Shenzhou spacecraft is scheduled to dock at the Tianhe core module of the space station.
Following their arrival at the space station, the crew is set to reunite with three fellow astronauts from the Shenzhou-15 mission who have been stationed at the orbiting laboratory for the past six months. The trio is scheduled to depart the space station and return to Earth in the near future.
According to CMSA spokesperson Lin Xiqiang, the upcoming Shenzhou-16 mission will conduct various experiments, such as those related to high-precision space time-frequency systems, general relativity, and the origin of life. These experiments were announced during a press conference held on Monday.
In anticipation of the arrival of Shenzhou-16, the space station received a resupply of essential items including drinking water, clothing, food, and propellant earlier this month.
According to an expert who spoke to AFP, Tuesday’s mission holds significance as it marks a routine crew rotation flight.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the accumulation of experience in human spaceflight operations is crucial and does not necessarily require the achievement of new, remarkable milestones on a regular basis.
China’s ambitious “space dream” has been accelerated under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, with plans now underway to construct a base on the moon.
According to a statement made by Lin, a spokesman for the China National Space Administration (CMSA), China aims to accomplish its initial crewed Moon landing and conduct scientific exploration and technological experiments by the year 2030.
Last year, the core structure of Tiangong, also known as the “heavenly palace,” was successfully docked with its final module.
According to state news agency Xinhua, the station is equipped with various advanced scientific instruments, including a space-based cold atomic clock system that is claimed to be the first of its kind in the world.
China’s Tiangong space station is set to maintain its position in low Earth orbit, hovering at an altitude of 400 to 450 kilometres (250 to 280 miles) for a minimum of a decade.
Astronauts work in shifts to keep the spacecraft constantly crewed, with teams of three rotating in and out.
Since 2011, China has been effectively excluded from the International Space Station due to a ban imposed by the United States on NASA’s engagement with the country. This has led Beijing to develop its own orbital outpost.
On Monday, China’s space agency reaffirmed its pursuit of international collaboration in the endeavour.
The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) has announced its plan to launch two crewed space missions to Tiangong annually. The upcoming Shenzhou-17 mission is anticipated to launch in October.