China on 17 October 2016 successfully launched the manned spacecraft Shenzhou-11, carrying two astronauts who will remain in space for 33 days, the longest manned mission in the country's space program to date. Shenzhou-11, China's sixth manned spacecraft, docked with space lab Tiangong-2, marking a step closer to its space station ambitions. The spacecraft was launched with a Long March-2F Y11 carrier rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gobi desert at 7:30 a.m. Beijing time. The launch was declared a success by Zhang Youxia, commander-in-chief of China's manned space program, about 19 minutes after lift-off.
President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, sent a message of congratulations for the successful launch, expressing hope that "Chinese people will take bigger steps and march further in space, to make a new contribution to the building of China into a space power." Premier Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan, both members of Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee, watched the live broadcast of the launch at the command center of China's manned space program in Beijing.
The Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft successfully completed its automated docking with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab at 3:31 a.m. Wednesday Beijing Time, according to Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC). Shenzhou-11, which was launched 17 Octoer 2016 from northwest China's Gobi Desert, began to approach Tiangong-2 automatically at 1:11 a.m. 19 October 2016 and made contact with the space lab at 3:24 a.m.. The rendezvous took place in the orbit about 393 kilometers above Earth. The two astronauts aboard Shenzhou-11, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, monitored and reported on the docking operation, relaying their findings to the control center. According to the mission schedule, once they entered the space module, the astronauts would stay there for 30 days. After docking with Tiangong-2, the astronauts entered the space lab and stay there for 30 days.
The two astronauts are commander Jing Haipeng, a 50-year-old veteran who participated in the Shenzhou-7 and Shenzhou-9 missions, as well as Chen Dong, 38, who is on his first space mission. A ceremony to see the two astronauts off was held at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center ahead of the launch on Monday morning. In an interview with Xinhua, Chen said he was inspired by his idol, China's first astronaut Yang Liwei, to become one of the country's elite space explorers.
Tiangong-2 was launched into space on September 15. The rendezvous will happen at an orbit about 393 kilometers above Earth, the same height the future Chinese space station will operate at. Wu Ping, deputy director of China's manned space engineering office, said that Tiangong-2 has already reached its preset orbit 393 kilometers above the earth, adding that it was in stable condition and would meet the requirements for docking with Shenzhou-11 and accommodating the astronauts.
The mission aimed to transport personnel and materials between Earth and Tiangong-2, as well as test meeting, docking and return processes. Other objectives include aerospace medical experiments, space science experiments and in-orbit maintenance. The astronauts will conduct three experiments designed by middle school students from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, including raising silkworms in space.
Jing and Chen wwere special correspondents for Xinhua, sharing their work and life in space via text, photo, audio and video, using Xinhua's global media services. During their 30 days in the space lab, the astronauts worked eight hours per day, six days a week, according to the Astronaut Center of China. "It is synchronized with the sleep-wake cycle on Earth and marks a transitional design to long-term flight in a space station," said Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer of the astronaut system with the center.
As the last manned space flight before China's space station mission, Shenzhou-11 offered a precious opportunity to verify the technology needed to support astronauts' life, health and work, as well as to gather data for the space station mission. The astronauts had access to: almost 100 kinds of food; contact with Earth through video, audio and emails; and exercise through a stationary bike and treadmill.
The mission would prove China's capability of carrying out a medium-term manned space mission. In June 2013, three astronauts spent 15 days in space with the Shenzhou-10 mission, which docked with Tiangong-1, the predecessor of Tiangong-2. Shenzhou-11 marked the imminent end of the exploratory stage of China's manned space program. The program would carry out manned space missions on a regular basis with the establishment of its own space station.
Tiangong-2 would remain operative in orbit after the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft returns to Earth, waiting for docking with Tianzhou-1, China's first cargo spacecraft to be launched in April 2017, to verify refueling technology, a key technology for any space station. The mission would be a key step toward China's dream of building a permanent manned space station.
Shenzhou-11 undocked from Tiangong-2 and return to Earth within one day. Two astronauts who completed China's longest-ever manned space mission returned to Earth safely 18 November 2016. The return capsule of the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft was spotted in the main landing area in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region at 2:07 p.m. Friday Beijing Time. The two astronauts spent a total of 33 days in space. Samples from space material and plant growth experiments carried out on China's space lab Tiangong-2 are in good condition and have been delivered to scientists for further research, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said. The material and plant samples were retrieved after the successful landing of the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft's reentry module.
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