China Set to Launch Two-Man Crew to New Tiangong-2 Space Station

China Set to Launch Two-Man Crew to New Tiangong-2 Space Station

Just one day before launch, China finally officially announced the names of the two crew members and launch time for the first mission to its new Tiangong-2 space station.  The Shenzhou-11 spacecraft with Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will launch at 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time tonight (Sunday), which is 7:30 am Monday (October 17) local time at the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert.

Andrew Jones, a reporter in Finland who writes for, had calculated the launch time several days ago based on observations of the space station’s orbital position and a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by China, but China’s official announcement through its Xinhua news service was not made until late last night EDT.   In fact, China’s CCTV television network released a story yesterday with an incorrect launch day and time.

In any case, Xinhua states that the launch aboard a Long March-2F rocket is at 7:30 pm EDT tonight.  Jing and Chen are headed to China’s Tiangong-2 space station, which was launched last month, where they will remain for 30 days. The longest Chinese human spaceflight mission to date is 15 days.

By coincidence, the Shenzhou-11 launch is just 33 minutes before NASA and Orbital ATK will launch a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The two space stations are in completely different orbits.

Tiangong-2 is a small, 8.6 metric ton (MT) space station.  It is similar to China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, which was launched in 2011 and occupied by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013.  (For a list of all Chinese human spaceflight launches, see this fact sheet.)  These two small stations are precursors to a multi-modular 60 MT space station China plans to have in place by the early 2020s.  

By comparison, ISS has a mass of approximately 400 MT.  It is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries acting through the European Space Agency.  ISS has been permanently occupied by multinational crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules since the year 2000.  NASA is prohibited by law from bilateral cooperation with China unless it makes specific certifications to Congress in advance.

Jing, 50, is the Shenzhou-11 mission commander.  This is his third spaceflight.   Chen, 38, is on his first mission.  They will dock with the space station two days after launch.  In addition to conducting scientific experiments and other tasks, they will serve as “special correspondents” sharing “their work and life in space via text, audio and video through Xinhua’s media services.”

The experiments include taking ultrasound measurements for the first time in space, cultivating plants, and testing the three winners of an experimental design competition in Hong Kong for secondary students, according to Xinhua.

China plans to launch its first cargo mission to Tiangong-2 in April 2017.  The Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will conduct a refueling test.  Until now, all Chinese human spaceflight-related missions have been launched from Jiuquan, but Tianzhou-1 will launch on a new Long March 7 rocket from the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

Chinese sources have variously stated that Tianzhou-1 will be the last launch to Tiangong-2 or that a second two-man crew will be sent on Shenzhou-12.


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