China Launches New Space Station Crew, With An Eye on the Moon

China Launches New Space Station Crew, With An Eye on the Moon

China launched a new crew to the Tiangong-3 space station this evening. The Shenzhou-16 crew will replace their Shenzhou-15 colleagues who are completing a 6-month mission. This is only the second time China has conducted a handover of operations from one crew to another as it begins long-term operations in Earth orbit. China is also talking about sending taikonauts to the Moon and yesterday projected 2030 for the first lunar crew. That is several years earlier than previously discussed.

Shenzhou-16 launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert on a Long March-2F rocket at 9:31 pm EDT (May 30, 9:31 am local time at the launch site).

Launch of Shenzhou-16 to Tiangong-3 from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, 9:31 pm May 29, 2023 EDT. Screengrab from CGTN.

China provides little information about its space activities and the space station program is no exception. They only officially announced the launch date and time for today’s spaceflight yesterday, although the general time frame was known since they’d said the Shenzhou-15 crew would be aboard for 6 months. They arrived at the end of November 2022. Western analysts including Bob Christy (@OrbitalFocus) were able to use orbital dynamics and NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) alerts to accurately calculate the launch time in advance. Christy similarly has calculated when Shenzhou-15 will return — June 3 at 22:22 UTC (6:22 pm EDT).

China also did not reveal the crew until yesterday. Commander Jing Haipeng is making his fourth spaceflight with two rookies, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao. Zhu is serving as flight engineer and Gui is China’s first civilian taikonaut. A professor at Beijing’s Beihang University, he will be a payload specialist overseeing science experiments. They will remain on the space station for about 5 months, returning in November.

Shenzhou-16 crew, L-R: Gui Haichao (payload specialist), Jing Haipeng (commander), Zhu Yangzhu (flight engineer). Credit: Xinhua tweet (@XHscitech)

Jing flew on Shenzhou-7 in 2008, Shenzhou-9 in 2012 and Shenzhou-11 in 2016. He’s the first Chinese taikonaut to make four spaceflights. Zhu and Gui were both selected in the third group of taikonauts in 2020. A fourth group will be chosen by the end of this year as space station missions become more routine.

Tiangong-3 is China’s third space station. The first two were quite small (about 8.5 Metric Tons each) and had only one docking port so could not be resupplied to enable long-duration missions. The approximately 70 MT Tiangong-3 has three modules (Tianhe, Wentian, and Mengtian) and two docking ports and is regularly resupplied by Tianzhou cargo spacecraft.

This simulated image captured at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on Nov. 12, 2022 shows China’s cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-5 (white vehicle on the left) having conducted a fast automated rendezvous and docking with the three-module Tiangong-3 space station. A Shenzhou crew spacecraft is also docked (far right, partially obscured by the solar arrays). Photo by Sun Fengxiao/Xinhua.

Lin Xiqiang, Deputy Director of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), told Xinhua the Shenzhou-16 crew will spend their time conducting studies of “novel quantum phenomena, high-precision space time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity, and the origin of life,” install “electric propulsion cylinders and lift extravehicular cameras,” and “complete the installation of large extravehicular application facilities such as radiation biological exposure experiment equipment.”

China’s human spaceflight aspirations don’t end in Earth orbit. It has talked about sending people to the Moon for many years. Most recently, in 2021 China and Russia agreed to cooperate on robotic and human lunar exploration through the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) program.

At the time, China said it anticipated the first ILRS crews on the Moon “after 2036.”  Yesterday, however CMSA said China now is looking at landing “by 2030.” It also released a solicitation for proposals for a “manned lunar rover” that would be driven by two taikonauts.

So far China has successfully landed three robotic spacecraft on the Moon. Chang’e-3 in 2013 and Chang’e-4 in 2019, both of which delivered small rovers, Yutu and Yutu-2. Chang’e-4/Yutu-2 are the only spacecraft ever to land on the Moon’s far side that always faces away from Earth. They communicate with mission control through a relay satellite, Queqiao, in a special lunar orbit that maintains a constant line-of-sight with Earth.  Chang’e-5 in 2020 was a sample return mission that sent back 1.7 kilograms (3.8 pounds) of lunar material. Chang’e-6, another sample return mission, and Chang’e-7, a lander/rover, are in development. Chang’e is the name of China’s mythological goddess of the Moon. Yutu is her pet rabbit

Photo provided by the China National Space Administration on Jan. 3, 2019 shows the first image of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe. China’s Chang’e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon Thursday, becoming the first spacecraft soft-landing on the moon’s uncharted side never visible from Earth. The probe, comprising a lander and a rover, landed at the preselected landing area at 177.6 degrees east longitude and 45.5 degrees south latitude on the far side of the moon at 10:26 a.m. Beijing Time (0226 GMT), the China National Space Administration announced. (Xinhua)

The Soviet Union is the only other country to robotically retrieve samples from the Moon and operate robotic rovers there. Those missions were in the early-mid 1970s. The three Luna sample return missions brought back a total of about 300 grams of material. The second rover, Lunokhod-2, set a record in 1973 for distance traveled on another celestial body of 42 kilometers (26 miles) that wasn’t broken until NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity ended operations in 2018 having traversed 45 kilometers (28 miles) on Mars. Lunokhod completed its trek in 4 months, Opportunity in 14 years.

Russia reportedly is getting ready to launch its first lunar probe since 1976 later this year. Luna 25 is a lander only, not a rover.

The United States sent several robotic landers to the Moon in the 1960s, but it was American astronauts who collected and returned samples and explored the surface with rovers. Six Apollo crews landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972, bringing back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar samples that are still being studied today.

The Moon is a popular place these days. Not only countries but companies and non-profits are sending small, innovative robotic lunar landers, although the success rate so far is poor.

The United States is planning to return astronauts to the surface at the end of 2025 as part of the international Artemis program. Before that, four astronauts — three Americans and one Canadian — will fly around the Moon on a test flight. That Artemis II mission is expected to launch in November 2024.

The Apollo program was cast as a race between the United States and the Soviet Union that the U.S. won. Some U.S. space enthuasiasts are trying to stimulate a similar fervor now with China as the opponent. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is one of them, arguing it is imperative for Americans to return to the Moon before China gets there and potentially denies access to high-value locations where water ice may be present, for example. Whether generating a space race mentality is an effective strategy remains to be seen as budget constraints tied to the debt limit deal play out.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.