China began construction of the space station with the launch of Tianhe – the first and largest of the station’s three modules – in late April 2021. The launch of the Tianzhou-2 cargo vessel is one of the 11 missions planed by China to complete the construction of its space station by the end of 2022, which includes the three launches of the core module and two lab capsules of the space station, four cargo vessel flights and four manned missions. On 29 May 2021 the Long March-7 Y3 carrier rocket carrying the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft took off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. During the mission of the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft, China managed to pull off a fast but smooth automatic docking of the cargo ship with the Tianhe module within only eight hours after launch.
Riding atop the Long March-2F Y12 carrier rocket, the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft was successfully launched into preset orbit on 17 June 2021 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in Southwest China's Gansu Province, signifying that China's Tianhe space station core cabin module is now only hours away from receiving its first batch of astronauts for their three-month stay.
“The flight was perfectly smooth,” Chen Shanguang, deputy director of China’s manned space programme, was quoted by news reports as saying. “This is the first step. There are many challenges ahead.” Shenzhou-12 or the “Divine Vessel” entered its designated orbit after separating with the rocket 573 seconds after its launch, declaring full success for the launch mission. After entering orbit, the spaceship conducted a fast automated “rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit space station core module Tianhe”, according to CCTV.
Nie Haisheng, who comes from central Hubei province and is a former air force pilot, is the lead of the mission. The Shenzhou-12 is Nie’s third space outing, after the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005 and the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013, according to the Xinhua news agency. It is Liu’s second mission to space, his first being the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008, which featured a landmark spacewalk. It is Tang’s first journey into space. China’s last crewed flight mission was in 2016 when two men – Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng – were sent via the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to Tiangong-2, a prototype of the space station where they later stayed for about a month.
The astronauts will be stationed in the core module and remain in orbit for three months. State-owned Global Times publication quoted Gao Xu, deputy director designer of the Shenzhou-12, as saying that the development of the manned spacecraft followed “the highest standards in the country’s space industry.” Gao referred to the spacecraft as a “vessel of life”, as it will not only ferry the three astronauts to the orbiting Tianhe core module, but is also expected to carry them home to Earth in approximately 90 days.
The Shenzhou-12 is made up of three sections – an orbiter module, a return module and a propelling module, and has 14 sub-systems onboard. Compared to its crewed mission predecessor from five years ago, whose exterior was dull grey color, the Shenzhou-12 has a new shining silver look, due to the application of a new type of heat-resistant coating. The Shenzhou-12 will spend longer in orbit than previous Shenzhou spacecraft, meaning it will face with a harsher space environment. For example, it Sun-exposed side will reach 90 degree Celsius on the surface and minus 30 degree Celsius on the far side from the Sun, according to CAST. The new coating that uses new materials will help protect the inside of the craft from this harsh environment, and prevent it from affecting the living conditions of astronauts and working conditions for multiple precision appliances on board, said the coating designers.
Making the safety of astronauts a priority, the research team of the Shenzhou-12 mission has also developed a new emergency response system to ensure that the astronauts can be rescued both in space and at the launch site. According to CAST, two Shenzhou vessels have been transported to the launch site, which means that Shenzhou-12 has a back-up that will stand by in the event of an emergency. The latter has the capability of being launched in eight and a half days to carry out space rescue work after the launch of the former.
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