Space Race

New space milestone as China successfully sends three astronauts to space station

The station is still under construction and this first manned mission will serve to test it out

3 min
The three Chinese astronauts who have risen this Thursday, June 17, to the module of the future Chinese space station.

BarcelonaWith all the excitement and solemnity of great historical milestones, three Chinese astronauts have successfully risen early this Thursday from the Jiuquan space base in the north of the country, in the direction of the new Chinese space station, still under construction. A new success for China's competitive space program.

In a very brief ceremony, in which they committed to their mission before a high military command, the three men greeted a crowd (limited and with masks) that was waving Chinese flags in front of a large mural with photographs of the 14 Chinese astronauts who have traveled so far to space. The three members of the Shenzou-12 mission said goodbye before boarding the van that took them to the launch area.

This is the first manned mission that travels to the only module that currently exists of the future Chinese space station, the Tianhe, with the aim of testing various technologies that allow to finish building the station and adapt it to accommodate astronauts for long periods of time once it is completed in 2022. The three astronauts will be there for three months and will return in September, and a second mission is expected to last six months.

The Long March 2F rocket, which has carried the Shenzou-12 mission (which means divine vessel), had risen at 9.22 am in China (3.22 am Catalan), from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in the province of Gansu, in the north-central part of the country. Six and a half hours later they had successfully docked to the Tianhe module.

The Long March 2F rocket successfully lifting off from the Jiuquan space platform with the first manned mission to China's future space station.

"Its objective is to verify some technologies of the station, make repairs and adjustments, and especially to test regeneration technologies for life support to allow it to stay longer", Yang Yuguan, deputy head of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, explained to the Chinese television CGTN in the special live program that broadcast the launch.

The Shenzhou-12 is the third of the 11 missions needed to complete the construction of the new Chinese space station, which began in April with the launch of the Tianhe, the first of three modules. Astronauts Nie Haisheng, a 56-year-old veteran who has been in space twice before, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, will be on the station for three months. The three men will be monitored to track the effects of space stays on their bodies, and are expected to go out to do work outside the station.

The future Chinese space station will compete with the International Space Station, operated by NASA in collaboration with the Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, and in which China has never participated because of Washington's veto on cooperation with the Chinese space agency. The international agreement for the ISS, which has been in orbit since 1998, expires in 2024, and in recent months Russia has expressed its willingness to abandon it and also build its own, arguing that the deteriorated state of the ISS does not allow it to remain there for long.

The Chinese station is expected to be operational from 2022, with the aim of doing scientific space research. The Shenzhou-12 mission that was launched on Thursday is the first manned Chinese mission in nearly five years and represents a new milestone in China's meteoric space race, which began timidly in the 1970s but has accelerated enormously in the current 21st century: the first launch of an unmanned spacecraft was in 1999, and in 2003 China became the third country in the world - after the United States and the USSR - to send a man into space with its own rocket. In recent years they have added more successes, such as reaching lunar orbit in 2007 and landing an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon in 2013. Last year China also launched a mission to Mars which landed a robot on the Red Planet in May, becoming only the second country to achieve the milestone after the US.