Chinese astronauts prep for six-month space station construction flight

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A Chinese Long March 2F rocket with the Shenzhou 14 spacecraft rolled to the launch pad at the Jiuquan space center May 29. Credit: CASC

Three Chinese military pilots are ready for launch Saturday on a Long March 2F rocket to begin a six-month expedition to help expand China’s space station in low Earth orbit, a mission slated to include the arrival of two modules and multiple spacewalks.

Chinese officials publicly revealed the crew of the Shenzhou 14 mission Saturday, less than 24 hours before the astronauts are set to blast off from the Jiuquan launch base in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China.

The three-person crew will be commanded by Chen Dong, a 43-year-old former Chinese military fighter pilot who logged 32 days in orbit on the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016. Joining him on the six-month Shenzhou 14 mission will be Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe, also pilots in the Chinese military.

Like Chen, Liu is making her second trip to space. She became the first Chinese woman to reach space in 2012 on the Shenzhou 9 mission. The 43-year-old is a colonel in the Chinese Air Force.

Cai, 46, is preparing for his first launch to space.

“Besides work, I will also enjoy the beauty of space, take pictures of the beautiful Earth and the great motherland, take a look at the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, and find my dear hometown, and I will share it with you at that time,” Cai said in a press briefing Saturday.

Chen, Liu, and Cai plan to put on their launch and entry suits and ride a bus to the launch pad a few hours before liftoff, when they will ride an elevator and board the Shenzhou 14 spacecraft on top of the 203-foot-tall (62-meter) rocket.

“The astronaut flight crew is in good condition, the ground system facilities and equipment are running stably, and all preparations before launch have been basically completed,” said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency.

The launch is set for 10:44 p.m. EDT Saturday (0244 GMT Sunday), a precise time selected for the moment Earth’s rotation brings the Long March launch pad under the flight path of the Chinese space station.

Liftoff is scheduled for 10:44 a.m. Beijing time, when the Long March 2F’s liquid-fueled engines will ignite to push the launcher into the sky.

Astronauts Cai Xuzhe, Chen Dong, and Liu Yang (left to right) greet media representatives at the Jiuquan launch base. Credit: China Manned Space Agency

A core stage engine and four strap-on boosters will generate 1.4 million pounds of thrust, driving the rocket and crew eastward from Jiuquan in pursuit of the Chinese space station. The Long March 2F will consume thousands of gallons of toxic, corrosive propellants to accelerate the 8.5-ton Shenzhou spaceship into orbit.

The second stage of the rocket will deploy the crew craft about 10 minutes into the mission. Moments later, Shenzhou 14 is programmed to unfurl its solar panels to begin producing its own electricity.

The spacecraft will fire thrusters to fine-tune its approach to the Chinese space station, culminating in an automated docking at the Tianhe core module around six hours after liftoff. The astronauts will open hatches and float into the Tianhe core module to begin their work.

Two unpiloted Tianzhou cargo ships are currently docked at the Tianhe core module, which orbits Earth at an altitude of about 240 miles (385 kilometers). The most recent cargo delivery by the Tianzhou 4 spacecraft arrived May 9.

Shenzhou 14 is the third crew mission to visit the Chinese station. Shenzhou 12’s astronauts spent three months on the station last year, and the three astronauts on the Shenzhou 13 mission departed the orbiting complex April 15 to head for landing after six months in space.

During their planned half-year in orbit, the Shenzhou 14 astronauts will see the arrival of two new pressurized research modules that will link up with the Tianhe core section, giving the Chinese station its fully-assembled “T-shaped” configuration.

The astronauts will unpack equipment and supplies delivered by the Tianzhou 4 cargo freighter last month, and also see the arrival of the Tianzhou 5 supply ship later this year.

The Wentian module, set for launch in late July, will carry a small robotic arm designed for more precise movements than the larger arm positioned outside the Tianhe core module. The Wentian module will primarily host life science and biological experiments, Chinese officials said.

The launch of the Mengtian module is scheduled for October. It will accommodate materials science experiments and technology demonstrations, according to Lin, the deputy director for China’s human spaceflight program.

The heavy-lift Long March 5B launcher for the Wentian module arrived last month at the Wenchang launch base in southern China. The rocket components were manufactured at a state-run factory in Tianjin, China, and ferried to the launch base on Hainan Island by ship.

The Wentian lab itself was previously delivered to the launch site.

Artist’s illustration of the Chinese space station after the launch of two new experiment modules later this year. Credit: China Manned Space Agency

The Wentian and Mengtian modules will initially dock with an axial port on the Tianhe module. A mechanical arm will move the 20-ton modules to their final positions on each side of the space station’s core section.

The Shenzhou 14 astronauts will be the first to enter the Wentian and Mengtian modules after their final connection with the Tianhe core element. They will also use a new airlock in the Wentian module for two or three spacewalks, according to Lin.

For previous spacewalks outside the Chinese station, astronauts exited through a hatch on the Tianhe module.

“The flight crew of Shenzhou 14 will cooperate with the ground to complete the rendezvous, docking and repositioning of the two experimental cabins and the core cabin,” Lin said. “They will be stationed in the Wentian experimental cabin and the Mengtian experimental cabin for the first time to establish a manned environment.”

The Shenzhou 14 crew will remain in orbit on the Chinese space station until December, when their replacements are scheduled to launch on the Shenzhou 15 mission.

The flight plan includes a brief handover between the Shenzhou 14 and 15 crews, temporarily raising the crew size on the Chinese space station to six astronauts, a record for China’s human spaceflight program.

With the arrivals and departures of cargo ships, the addition of two new research modules, spacecraft reposition maneuvers, and the docking of the Shenzhou 15 crew craft late this year, the Chinese space station will go through nine different configurations during the six-month Shenzhou 14 expedition.

The busy schedule will “put forward high requirements for the crew’s ability to perform,” Lin said.

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