China gears up for new space station missions, record-breaking crew set to return home

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HELSINKI — A Long March rocket arrived at Wenchang spaceport Monday in preparation for a new round of space station missions starting May.

The Long March 7 rocket was delivered to Wenchang after a near week-long voyage from the northern port city of Tianjin, China’s human spaceflight agency announced April 11.

The rocket is planned to launch the roughly 13.5-metric-ton Tianzhou-4 cargo vessel next month to China’s Tianhe space station core module. 

Tianzhou-4 will deliver supplies and propellant for the Shenzhou-14 crewed mission, expected to launch from Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert in June.

The three-person Shenzhou-14 crew will be aboard the Tianhe space module for the arrival of two new modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, which will complete the three-module, T-shaped Chinese space station, later in the year.

China deorbited the Tianzhou-2 spacecraft late last month after using the cargo vessel for space station module transposition tests, making way for the new mission.

The subsequent launch of the Tianzhou-5 and Shenzhou-15 late in 2022 will see a first crew handover, with six astronauts aboard the Tiangong space station, and completion of the project’s 11-mission construction phase.

China plans to operate the Tiangong station for at least 10 years and has already announced plans to open the station to commercial activities and potentially tourist missions.

Tianhe is currently hosting the three Shenzhou-13 astronauts Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu. The mission is China’s longest human spaceflight endeavor so far which, at 181 days in orbit, is nearly double the previous national record of 92 days set by the 2021 Shenzhou-12 mission. 

Airspace closure notices indicate that Shenzhou-13 will return to Earth between 9:35 and 10:05 p.m. Eastern April 15 (9:35-10:05 local time, April 16) following departure from Tianhe.

The Shenzhou return capsule is planned to set down in a designated landing zone near Dongfeng in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia.

Previous landings occurred in the grasslands of Siziwang, Inner Mongolia. Factors for the change include increasing population density around Siziwang, and the need to optimize for astronaut recovery as the duration of China’s spaceflight missions increases.

The Shenzhou-13 mission has included a pair of extravehicular activities, conducted a range of experiments and hosted live science lectures for students back on Earth.

The mission was involved in a number of outreach and messaging events for domestic audiences, including an appearance in the flagship Lunar New Year live television show.

However the astronauts also interacted with participants at an Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America event on space exploration held April 9. 

Notably Elon Musk contributed pre-recorded remarks to the event, saying he was looking forward to “humanity working together” in space. Ambassador Qin Gang commented that space exploration is a “huge project of mankind, and it requires extensive international cooperation.”

The messaging, apparently signaling Chinese interest in cooperation with the U.S. at one level, comes in the wake of China amplifying Russia space officials’ comments on the possibility of Moscow working more closely with China in space. 

However, while Chinese media have interviewed senior Russian officials and reported Russian comments, there have been no public announcements from China’s space industry on potential further cooperation.

Russia has said it is looking at the possibility of sending Russian cosmonauts to China’s space station, using either ESA’s launch site in French Guiana or spaceports in Russia. The former is no longer a possibility following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while the respective latitudes of Russian spaceports and inclination of the Tiangong station pose problems for the latter avenue.