Shenzhou-14 spacecraft delivers three taikonauts to China Space Station to complete national space lab construction
Published: Jun 05, 2022 11:05 AM


Sitting atop the Long March-2F Y14 carrier rocket and carrying three taikonauts - the third crew to enter China's Tianhe space station core module - Shenzhou-14 is launched at 10:44 am on Sunday morning from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China's Gansu Province, amid sweaty palms and pounding hearts of millions of thrilled stargazers across the world.

After a flight of around 577 seconds, Shenzhou-14 manned spacecraft separated with the rocket, and entered designated orbit, with crew onboard in good conditions, marking a full success of the launch mission, Global Times learned from the China Manned Space Agency.

The Shenzhou-14 craft is scheduled to, similar to the previous missions, conduct a fast and autonomic rendezvous and docking with the radial port of the Tianhe module, while the exact time has yet to be released. It took the Shenzhou-13 mission merely six and a half hours to achieve the feat.

Shenzhou-14 will mark the first crewed spaceflight mission to Tianhe at the China Space Station in-orbit assembly stage. 

The Wentian and Mengtian space station lab modules, the Tianzhou-5 cargo spacecraft, and the Shenzhou-15 manned spacecraft are expected to be launched during the Shenzhou-14 crew's six-month stay in orbit, which would be a new experience for the taikonauts in Tianhe, as it is unprecedented in the previous two groups of space station crew. 

The space station combination would also see the simultaneous stay of six taikonauts in orbit, as the Shenzhou-14 and Shenzhou-15 crew members are expected to conduct their rotation in orbit for about a week, which would be another breakthrough in China's manned spaceflight history. 

Senior Colonel Chen Dong, 44, is a veteran taikonaut who visited space in China's Shenzhou-11 manned space mission in 2016 and set the previous record for the longest stay in space by a Chinese astronaut at 33 days (in the Tiangong-2 space lab). 

The record was broken by Shenzhou-13 taikonaut Wang Yaping in 2022, and Chen would be able to further surpass that with another 180 days of stay in space in the Shenzhou-14 run.

Senior Colonel Liu Yang, a female crew member joining Shenzhou-14, also 44, went to space in 2012 in the Shenzhou-9 mission, and is in fact the first Chinese woman to do so. At a press conference on Sunday, she said that for the upcoming 6-month stay, she and her crewmates are looking forward to celebrating for the first time the birthday of their motherland on October 1 as well as the Mid-Autumn Festival, a holiday for the reunion and gathering of the Chinese people. This year's Mid-Autumn Festival falls on September 10.

Senior Colonel Cai Xuzhe, 46, will be making his maiden voyage during the upcoming mission. "For this day, I have prepared 12 years. I feel honored and proud to have this chance to go into space for my country," he said.

The Shenzhou-14 crew are, together, the second batch of taikonauts China has trained.

Commenting on the younger lineup in which the older, first group of veterans are not included, Pang Zhihao, a Beijing-based senior space expert said that the new Shenzhou taikonaut trio must have showed outstanding performance during training, and the younger crew members have mastered new knowledge and new skills for the mission. 

Pang told the Global Times that the Shenzhou-14 crew is still made up of two veterans and one newcomer just like the Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13 missions. And that the younger crew members would have better stamina and could deliver on more complicated tasks such as the installation and testing of two lab modules. 

The trio is slated to carry out the verification of big and small robotic arms, spacewalks, and the construction of payload outside the cabin, the Global Times learned from the Shenzhou spacecraft developer with the state-owned aerospace contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC.)

Like during the previous missions, the Shenzhou-14 crew will also give Tiangong classes to earthbound youngsters, and will for the first time use the airlock cabin in the Wentian module to exit the station for extravehicular activities. These activities will be arranged two to three times during their stay, the Global Times has learned.

The basic structure of the space station, consisting of the Tianhe core cabin and the two lab modules ̶ Wentian expected in July and Mengtian in October ̶̶ will be completed during this mission, thus establishing a national space laboratory.

The laboratory will contain 25 cabinets for a variety of scientific experiments, each of which can function as an individual lab, reaching an overall international advanced level, Lin Xiqiang, deputy head of China Manned Space Engineering Office, told the Global Times. 

Wentian lab will mainly focus on the study of space life sciences, which can support the growth, development, genetics and aging of multiple species of plants, animals and microorganisms under space conditions. 

Mengtian lab will be oriented to microgravity scientific researches and is equipped with experimental cabinets for fluid physics, materials science, combustion science, basic physics and space technology experiments.

Later, a space telescope research facility, the Xuntian telescope, will be launched into orbit and fly with the space station to carry out wide-area survey observations.

Another highlight for the Shenzhou-14 mission is the maneuvering of a small robotic arm installed on the Wentian module. Compared with the large robotic arm which has been launched into space with the Tianhe core cabin, the small one is more compact, Lin noted.

The weight and length of the small robotic arm are about half of the large one, and the load capacity is about one-eighth of the large arm. It also has a more flexible movement and manipulation than the large arm. 

The small robotic arm has a higher positioning accuracy, with the precision of positioning five times and that of attitude control twice than the large arm. Therefore it can complete more fine operations.

What's more, the small and large robotic arms can coordinate with each other to cover wider scopes of work outside the cabin, and the combination will be capable of achieving a greater variety of tasks.  

The Shenzhou-13 mission safely returned back to Earth on April 16 in a historic feat, thus concluding the technology verification stage of China's space station. The three crew members - Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu ̶  has completed their quarantine smoothly with cardiopulmonary functions and other body indicators recovering to their pre-flight levels.

They are currently in the second phase of recovery that focuses on muscle and bone recovery. In general, the three taikonauts are in good physical and mental condition, and the recovery of various physiological and psychological indicators is in line with expectations, the Global Times has learned.

Graphic: Chen Xia/GT

Graphic: Chen Xia/GT