HELSINKI — China’s Shenzhou-17 astronauts embarked on their first extravehicular activity Thursday to address minor damage to a Tiangong space station solar array.

Mission commander Tang Hongbo and Tang Shengjie began a roughly 7.5-hour extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalk, Thursday. The pair reentered Tiangong through the Wentian science module’s EVA hatch at 8:35 a.m. Eastern (1335 UTC) Dec. 21, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO).

Shenzhou-17 spacewalk tasks included a repair test on one of the Tianhe core module’s solar arrays. The system was earlier found to have suffered minor damage through micrometeoroid hits. 

The successful experimental repair work could be seen as a big step for China as it aims to keep its Tiangong space station operational and permanently occupied for at least a decade.

Crewmate Jiang Xinlin assisted operations from inside Tiangong through the use of the space station’s robotic arm. Tang Shengjie, 34, became China’s youngest astronaut to embark on an EVA so far. 

Tang Hongbo completed his first spacewalk back in July 2021 during the  Shenzhou-12 mission — the first to visit the Tianhe core module.

“This extravehicular activity is extraordinarily significant, and extremely challenging. It is an in-orbit maintenance in its true sense,” Tang Hongbo said after the spacewalk, according to CCTV.

“At that moment, being there, I deeply felt the vastness of the starry sky and the profound meaning of infinite space exploration,” Tang Hongbo said.

A highlight video released by CMSEO showed the astronauts conducting closeup examinations of the solar array, assisted by the station’s robotic arms.

The EVA posed new challenges for the astronauts, according to Dong Nengli, deputy chief designer of China’s human spaceflight program. 

“For the previous extravehicular activities, the major tasks for astronauts were to install and check. This round of extravehicular activities on Thursday we call experimental servicing,” Dong told CCTV. 

“This time the astronauts operated on one of the solar wings. It is flexible, to a certain extent, and also very thin, which limits the space of operation to a certain degree,” Dong said.

Dong added that the successful EVA meant the teams had mastered the ability for some extravehicular repairs. Success was thus, “laying a solid foundation for us to guarantee the space station’s safety and reliability in the future.” 

The work required close coordination with the ground. “The repair work requires a very high level of precision, so it demands high precision in astronauts’ operation and proficiency in their use of tools,” Wang Yanlei, director of the astronaut selection and training department of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, told CCTV.

“They also had to confirm the coordination between ground and space, and verify the accuracy of the position.” Wang added. 

Evolving Tiangong plans

China completed construction of Tiangong in October 2022 and is further developing its plans for its utilization.

CMSEO is planning to launch an additional module which will allow the expansion of the orbital outpost. Yang Liwei, the country’s first astronaut to fly to space, says a process to select the first international astronauts to visit Tiangong is underway.

A report from the Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) earlier this year noted that how CMSEO operates Tiangong, such its opening participation to civilian astronauts and nonstate-owned enterprise (SOE) companies, could probably change the global image of the Chinese space program. CMSEO operates under China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Gui Haichao became the first Chinese civilian in space during the five-month-long Shenzhou-16 mission earlier this year. 

Commercial launch firms may also get to play a role in a new low-cost cargo system to supply Tiangong. Tomas Hrozensky, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews earlier this year that the CMSEO cargo program is a clear indication that China is seeking to replicate the approach which yielded NASA a major success.

Also Dec. 21 components for a Long March 7 rocket arrived at the coastal Wenchang spaceport. The rocket will launch the Tianzhou-7 cargo mission to Tiangong in mid January.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...