China gets ready to send second crew to space station for longer mission

William Zheng, South China Morning Post

Posted at Oct 08 2021 01:45 PM

China is expected to send a second crew into orbit next week to continue assembling its Tiangong space station, with a female astronaut among them, according to sources.

They will travel in the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft, which is set to blast off from the Gobi Desert in northern China in the early hours of October 16, two sources familiar with the manned space programme said.

The mission had been delayed to allow more time to prepare, one of the sources said earlier, and will now take place about a month after the first crew returned to Earth from a 90-day stay aboard the new space station.

The next crew of three astronauts will include a woman – 41-year-old Wang Yaping – and they will spend six months at Tiangong, the sources said.

On Thursday, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said the Shenzhou 13, mounted on a Long March 2F Y13 carrier rocket, had been transferred to the Jiuquan launch centre in Inner Mongolia.

“The facilities and equipment at the launch site are all in good condition, and the various functional inspections and tests before launch will be carried out as planned,” the CMSA said.

One of the sources, based at the Jiuquan launch centre, said preparations were “going well” and an automatic launch system would again be used.

“The automatic system worked very well to launch the Tianzhou 3 [cargo ship last month] so we’re going to use it again … the system determines the best time to ignite the rocket,” the source said.

The cargo ship was used to send 6 tonnes of supplies to the space station for the next crew’s mission.

In Beijing, a second source familiar with the space programme confirmed that Wang would be part of the crew and said the two other astronauts would be announced a day before the launch.

“Wang will be a trailblazer for all women who want to go on a long-term space mission,” the person said. “With her as part of the crew, we’ll be able to compare the long-term effect of near-zero gravity on men and women so that we can better prepare all the astronauts who will go to the space station on six-month missions.”

Wang became the second Chinese woman in space as part of the Shenzhou 10 crew in 2013. She gave a video lecture on physics from the Tiangong 1 space laboratory that was broadcast live on television.

This time, the crew will look at how sustainable the space station’s technology is for long stays, conduct more spacewalks – the previous crew completed two – to test the robotic arm and their spacesuits, and carry out scientific experiments, the CMSA said.

Once the Shenzhou 13 has docked with the core module and the Tianzhou 3 cargo ship, the space station will become a T-shaped structure with a mass of nearly 50 tonnes.

Two more laboratory modules are expected to be sent to the station this year so that the astronauts can carry out more experiments in areas such as space medicine and biotechnology. China aims to finish building the space station next year, with two more cargo missions and another two manned missions planned for 2022 to make it fully functional.

By then, the Tiangong will be about a quarter of the size of the International Space Station, which was built by a coalition of 16 countries. The Tiangong is likely to be the only space station operating in near-Earth orbit by the end of the decade, because the 15-year-old ISS is ageing, especially its Russian segment, the Zvezda service module.