Three astronauts just boarded China’s Tiangong space station, where they will spend the next six months conducting science experiments, as well as attempting to expand and complete the nascent orbital outpost.
Astronauts Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong, and Liu Yang are tasked with China’s most “complicated and challenging” crewed mission to the space station yet, according to Huang Weifen, chief astronaut system designer of China’s Astronaut Centre, as reported in China’s state-run CGTN. The newly arrived crew will oversee the docking of two new modules, in addition to setting them up and running tests. The two lab modules have not yet arrived in space, but their addition will see the Tiangong space station expand from one to three modules.
The Shenzhou-14 crew, riding atop a Long March 2F rocket, launched on Sunday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert. They arrived at the station about six hours later, docking to the Earth-facing port of Tianhe, the core module of Tiangong, at 5:42 a.m. ET, CNN reports.
This is the third crew to spend time on China’s space station, which is currently still under construction in low Earth orbit. The two previous crewed missions to the space station, Shenzhou-12 (launched in June 2021) and Shenzhou-13 (launched in October 2021), also sent three astronauts to the Tianhe core module.
Tiangong, which translates to heavenly palace, launched to orbit in April 2021 and is scheduled to be fully constructed by the end of the year with the help of the Shenzhou-14 crew. The current goal is to construct a three-module space station, but the outpost could be expanded to six should the main phase construction go well. The ambitious project is meant to rival the International Space Station and become a part of China’s larger plan to expand its military-run space program. China is hoping for a constant flow of astronauts launching to the space station by the end of this year, and to eventually send astronauts to the Moon, and possibly even to Mars.
During their six-month stay on the space station, the Shenzhou-14 crew will attempt to connect two lab modules to the station’s main body. The modules, Wentian and Mengtian, are scheduled to launch in July and October, respectively. Once the modules launch, the crew will be responsible for recieving and attaching them to the main module on either side to form a t-shape. The crew will also unload and install a dozen scientific experiment cabinets in the two modules, according to China’s state-run Xinhua.
Work in the Wentian lab will mainly focus on the study of life in low Earth orbit, such as the ability to grow plants, animals, and microorganisms in the harsh environment of space. Meanwhile, the Mengtian lab will be used to conduct various microgravity experiments related to fluid physics, combustion science, and space technology, according to China’s state-run Xinhua.
The crew is scheduled to return back to Earth in December, while the Shenzhou-15 mission is scheduled to launch at the end of the year; it’s expected that the incoming crew will overlap with Shenzhou-14 for about 10 days or a week, according to CNN.