China’s next manned space mission, the first since 2016, will normally launch next June. During this mission, three taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) will integrate the central module of their new station.
The International Space Station (ISS) is no longer the only space laboratory currently in orbit. China has just launched the main module of its new laboratory. The country plans at least ten additional launches to deliver two other modules of the structure, but also cargo and manned missions.
A first manned mission since 2016
The first of these crewed missions – Shenzhou 12 – should be launched next June. It will be China’s seventh manned space mission since 2003, when China became the third country to perform manned space flights independent, after Russia and the United States.
As a reminder, the most recent of these manned missions was Shenzhou-11, in 2016. At the time, two astronauts had spent more than a month inside the space station Tiangong 2. The structure was then deorbited to carry out a controlled atmospheric reentry on July 19, 2019.
For this launch, the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft will be capped with a 2 F Long March rocket. At the beginning of April, the two structures were delivered by rail to the Jiuquan satellite launch center, in the Gobi desert. They are currently undergoing final assembly.
The Shenzhou 12 mission will send three taikonauts into low earth orbit. Their ship will dock with the station’s central module. This manned mission will be preceded by a mission cargo to deliver supplies and thruster to the module. This freight capsule (Tianzhou 2) will probably be launched in May aboard a Long March 7 rocket from the Wenchang base in southern China.
Chinese officials have yet to reveal the identity of the crew members of this next manned mission. It is also not known how long it will last. We do know, however, that until the end of the station assembly normally scheduled for 2022, China plans to launch four other cargo missions and as many crewed missions.
A real laboratory in orbit
Once operational, this structure of around one hundred tons (approximately one fifth of the mass of the International Space Station) will be able to accommodate up to three taikonauts for stays of up to six months. The station will eventually be able to accommodate more people (up to six), but for shorter periods.
On board, the astronauts will conduct various science experiments and prepare for long-duration space flights. Space physiology, fluid physics, materials science, astronomy… To date, around a hundred experiments have already been selected from more than 800 national proposals. Some studies carried out by international researchers will also be planned.