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Three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth on 16 April 2022 after 183 days in space, completing the country's longest space mission with a crew. The astronauts landed nine hours after leaving a key module of China's first space station. After launching in October, the astronauts - Zhai Zhigan, Ye Guangfu and female crew member Wang Yaping - spent 183 days in space. Shenzhou-13 was the second of four planned manned missions to complete construction of the space station, which began last April. The next two missions of China will be the cargo spacecraft "Tianzhou-4", and the mission "Shenzhou-14" of three people.

The Tianzhou-3 cargo vessel and Shenzhou-13 manned spaceship were planned for launch in September and October respectively. Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft, the second "delivery man" to bring cargo to China's space station and a prelude to the next group of Chinese taikonauts who are about to embark their six-months journey to space on the Shenzhou-13 mission, conducted an ultra-fast yet smooth rendezvous and docking with the Tianhe core cabin on 20 September 2021, merely 6.5 hours after launch. Docked at the rear of the Tianhe core cabin, the cargo spacecraft carried among its payload daily supplies, propellants and a space suit for space walk for the upcoming Shenzhou-13 manned mission, forming a combo with the in-orbit Tianhe and Tianzhou-2.

The three taikonauts onboard the Shenzhou-13 spaceship entered the country's space station core module Tianhe on 16 October 2021. The rendezvous and docking happened at 6:56 am, six and a half hours after traveling on a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China's Gansu Province. After Shenzhou-13 successfully completed a fast automated rendezvous and docking with the orbiting Tianhe module, the Shenzhou-13 crew Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu entered the orbital capsule of Tianhe, marking the country's second crew to have entered China's Tianhe space station core cabin.

Among the three new residents, there are the country's first spacewalker Zhai Zhigang, first female taikonaut to have stepped inside its own space station Wang Yaping, and first taikonaut who was trained in an international space agency Ye Guangfu. They will stay in space for six months, double the time of the Shenzhou-12 crew. They are tasked to carry out two to three extravehicular activities, better known as spacewalks. Wang Yaping will participate in at least one spacewalk, becoming the first Chinese woman to achieve such a feat.

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. 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.

Docked at the bottom of the Tianhe core cabin from a radial direction, the spacecraft safely and smoothly delivered the second batch of residents to China’s space station. A combination flight has been formed, consisting of the Tianhe core cabin at the center, and Shenzhou-13 manned craft, Tianzhou-2 and -3 cargo craft on the side.

According to the spacecraft developers with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), they designed a new rendezvous path and circling flight mode to support fast-docking in the radial direction. As beautiful as the “space waltz” was, it was a lot more difficult than the front and rear docking with the Tianhe core cabin as the Shenzhou-12, Tianzhou-2 and -3 missions had exercised. “For front and rear dockings, there is a 200-meter holding point for the craft, enabling them to maintain a stable attitude in orbit even when engines are not working. However, radial rendezvous does not have such a midway stopping point, and it requires continuous attitude and orbit control,” the CAST said.

During the radial rendezvous, the spacecraft needs to turn from level flight to vertical flight with a wide range of attitude maneuvers, posing tough challenges for the "eyes" of the craft to see the target in time and ensure that the "eyes" will not be disturbed by complex lighting changes. The success of this new docking method would be another sign of China's spacecraft docking capabilities. The Shenzhou-12 used the R-Bar docking technology shortly after its detachment from the core module in September 2021.

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Page last modified: 16-04-2022 17:35:11 ZULU