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There will soon be two places in orbit where astronauts live.
On Thursday, three Chinese astronauts will take off from the Gobi Desert and, if all goes according to plan, meet with China’s nascent space station. Two of the outpost’s modules were launched in April and May.
The Chinese space station Tiangong or Heavenly Palace joins the International Space Station, the project led by the United States and Russia that has been continuously occupied for more than two decades.
Thursday’s launch marks the third of eleven planned missions to complete construction of China’s first long-term outpost in space before the end of next year.
In China, the construction of the space station was met with unusual public roar, reflecting the country’s leadership’s growing confidence in its space missions, which have achieved a number of great successes in recent months.
The China Manned Space Agency has scheduled the launch for Thursday at 9:22 a.m. in China (Wednesday night at 9:22 p.m. Eastern Time or 1:22 a.m. Coordinated Universal Time).
Chinese state media are expected to present a live video broadcast of the launch. Video programs in an English-language stream before the start showed the three crew members on board their capsule how they were preparing for the start of the voyage. Another feed that only shows the introductory reporting is available below:
The country’s space program, which has long been kept top secret, has switched between a lack of transparency and a new openness in recent months. On Wednesday, a senior agency official and the three astronauts briefed invited media representatives about preparations in Jiuquan, a provincial town on the edge of the Gobi Desert, where the launch will take place.
The government allowed live video streams of the space station’s first two modules’ launches in April and May, although it returned to its shape during the most recent mission to Mars, revealing only some information – and photos – after successfully landing a robot Rover on the surface last month.
The astronauts will enter orbit aboard Shenzhou-12, a spacecraft that will dock with the two previously launched modules. It effectively becomes another part of the space station orbiting 242 miles or 390 kilometers above the earth. (The International Space Station is slightly higher at 248 miles.)
Modeled after the Soyuz spacecraft from the Soviet era, the Shenzhou, although larger, consists of three modules, including a re-entry vehicle that will bring the astronauts back to Earth. In addition to the crew, it provides basic supplies for a longer stay, including 120 different meals with “a balanced diet, rich variety, good taste and long shelf life,” says Ji Qiming, assistant to the director of the Chinese manned space agency.
A related spacecraft, Shenzhou-5, launched the first Chinese astronaut into space in 2003. This made China, along with the United States and the Soviet Union and its successor Russia, the only country that achieved this achievement independently. China has since made five more crewed flights into orbit, the last in 2016.
The mission commander is Nie Haisheng, 56. He is a retired fighter pilot and a veteran of two previous Shenzhou missions in 2005 and 2013.
Liu Boming, 54, is another space veteran who was part of the 2008 mission that included China’s first space walk. This feat was accomplished by another astronaut, Zhai Zhigang, but Mr. Liu briefly emerged from a portal and became the second Chinese astronaut to touch space.
The third crew member is Tang Hongbo, 45. He has been a backup crew member for Shenzhou missions twice but is making his first trip into space. He noted that his education had now lasted 11 years. “There is certainly pressure,” he said, “but I firmly believe that pressure is motivation.”
The China Academy of Space Technology told The Global Times, a state newspaper, that the drive to the orbital module would take about 6.5 hours. When it arrives on Thursday evening, the probe will dock autonomously at the station.
This is comparable to the flight time of a cargo ship called Tianzhou in May, which docked with the core module about eight hours after take-off. It carried several tons of supplies to equip and maintain the station, which will have three bedrooms, a bathroom, and space for the astronauts to eat and exercise.
The Shenzhou-12 crew is expected to spend the next three months in orbit. After that, a second crew of three astronauts will replace them.
The station is still under construction so the astronauts’ main responsibilities will be to keep building it, installing equipment like cameras, and testing various functions, including life support and waste management. As part of this effort, they are scheduled to conduct two spacewalks.
Mr. Nie, the commander, told reporters in Jiuquan on Wednesday that this mission would be more arduous and challenging than his two previous ones.
“Not only will we have to set up the core module, the Space Home,” he said, “we will also do a number of key technology reviews.”
China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but the Tiangong is said to be in service for at least a decade and join the International Space Station.
The Chinese station will serve as a revolving laboratory for the country’s space program to perfect operations and conduct new experiments – at least nine of them so far with international partners. Officials said that after the station is completed next year they will consider bringing foreign astronauts to the station.
Mr. Ji, the assistant director, admitted at a briefing that China was “a straggler” when it came to developing an orbiting space station, an achievement the United States and the Soviet Union accomplished decades ago. He noted, however, that China benefited from “latecomer advantages”, presumably from the experiences of these earlier stations.
Like all of China’s space missions, its successes in space are seen as an affirmation of the Communist Party’s rule. Mr. Ji noted that the Shenzhou crew would be in orbit on July 1, the official anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai 100 years ago.
“The construction and operation of the space station can be seen as an important symbol of a country’s economic, technological and overall strength,” he said.
In late April, China used one of the largest rockets currently in flight – the Long March 5B – to lift its space station’s massive Tianhe core module into orbit. While the trip was successful, China took no action that would result in a controlled re-entry of the missile’s large core stage to Earth. For days, sky watchers wondered where the rocket would land, and the NASA administrator criticized China for the rocket stage’s runaway re-entry.
Eventually it broke and landed near the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and so far there is no evidence that its debris has damaged anything on the ground.
The fall back to earth was a result of the Long March 5B’s unusual design. Usually the booster of a heavy-duty missile drops a few minutes after take-off and immediately falls back towards the surface. Then a much smaller second stage puts the payload into orbit.
The Long March 5B, on the other hand, consists of a 23-ton core stage and four side boosters without a second stage. The side boosters drop off, but the core stage makes it to orbit, creating the risk of debris as no one can reliably predict where it will land.
Asked on Wednesday about the attention to May’s chaotic uncontrolled re-entry, Mr. Ji said China had followed protocols to notify the international community of the missile’s descent “in a timely manner” and would do so on future missions.
The Long March 2F rocket that will transport the astronauts is a two-stage rocket that is much smaller than the Long March 5B, and it will not raise such a global alarm. The first stage booster and side boosters will fall back to Earth without reaching orbit, and the second stage will almost completely burn up when re-entering the atmosphere after sending the crew to their destination.
However, future launches towards the completion of the space station’s construction may again lead to worries about a falling missile stage. China plans more flights of the Long March 5B by 2022 as it puts more large components of the outpost into orbit.
Claire Fu contributed to the research.