Chinese Space Station Crew Home After Six Months in Orbit

Chinese Space Station Crew Home After Six Months in Orbit

The Shenzhou-13 crew returned home today (UTC) after 182 days in space, a record duration for China. During the mission, Wang Yaping became the first Chinese woman to make a spacewalk. The Chinese human spaceflight program proceeded at a measured pace over the past two decades, but with the launch of its first space station module last year and two more expected this year, that pace is accelerating.

Wang launched with two male colleagues, Zhai Zhigang and Ye Guangfu, on October 16, 2021 UTC (October 15 EDT) and returned early today, landing at 01:56 UTC (April 15, 9:56 pm EDT), which was 9:56 am local time in China. As usual, China did not provide details on the landing date or time until the event was close at hand, but eventually showed live coverage of the landing and the three taikonauts getting out of the spacecraft.

China reports the duration as 183 days, but Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report, an astrophysicist who keeps meticulous spaceflight records, calculates it at 182 days, 9 hours, 32 minutes and 53 seconds, which rounds down to 182 days.

Their six-month expedition was spent on China’s Tianhe core space station module, the first of three 22.5 Metric Ton (MT) modules that will comprise the China Space Station (CSS) or Tiangong-3. Tianhe was launched in April 2021. Like Russia’s Salyut 6, Salyut 7, and Mir space stations and the International Space Station (ISS), the CSS can be resupplied by robotic cargo spacecraft. Two Tianzhou cargo ships were docked to Tianhe during most of the Shenzhou-13 mission and one, Tianzhou-3, is still there.

This was the second spaceflight for both Zhai and Wang. Ye was a rookie. Since China launched its first taikonaut in 2003, Shenzhou-13 is only the eighth flight to carry people to space. The others were in 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2016, and another 2021 mission that preceded Shenzhou-13. That was the first crew to visit Tianhe, Shenzhou-12, who stayed for three months.

The other two modules, Wentian and Mengtian, are expected to be launched this year, forming a roughly 67 MT space station. Though small by ISS standards, which is about 420 MT, it will be a significant step forward for China.

Hours after Shenzhou 13’s return, Hao Chun, Director, China Manned Spaceflight Engineering Office, laid out the space station plan for the rest of this year. He also said China is developing a new, reusable crew spacecraft that can accommodate seven people, as well as a space telescope called Xuntian.

The space station schedule includes the first Chinese crew rotation with the Shenzhou-15 crew replacing the Shenzhou-14 crew during a 5-10 day handover period, as is typically done on the International Space Station.

  • May: Launch of Tianzhou-4 cargo resupply mission
  • June: Launch of Shenzhou-14 crew — three taikonauts for 6-month stay
  • July: Launch of Wentian module
  • October: Launch of Mengtian module
  • Not specified: Launch of Tianzhou-4 cargo resupply mission
  • Not specified: Launch of Shenzhou-15 crew who will perform the first crew rotation flight for China, switching plances with the Shenzhou-14 crew during a 5-10 day handover The new crew also will stay for six months.
Illustration of the completed China Space Station. Credit: China National Space Administraton video.

China is not part of the ISS because NASA is strictly limited in its bilateral cooperation with China pursuant to the Wolf amendment that is included in NASA’s appropriations bills. Originally sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) when he chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NASA, it retains strong support by House and Senate members who object to China’s human rights abuses, theft of U.S. intellectual property, and other geopolitical issues. The Wolf Amendment is not a total prohibition on cooperation, but NASA must get congressional permission first and satisfy a number of conditions. The language is routinely included in NASA’s annual appropriations bills even though Wolf retired more than seven years ago.

China is seeking international participation in the CSS, however, working through the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs to find scientists who want to fly experiments. European Space Agency astronauts have trained with Chinese taikonauts for potential future flights and the head of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, said last year that Russia will send cosmonauts there.

That was long before Russia invaded Ukraine and raised questions about Russia’s future participation in the ISS.

This week Rogozin sounded a friendlier tone than in the last several weeks of relentless offensive tweets. As reported by Russia’s TASS news agency on April 11, he told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that Russia will continue with the ISS at least until 2024, including the “crew swap” agreement that is being negotiated to allow Russians to fly on U.S. spacecraft and NASA astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

He did not bring up future visits to China’s space station. That would involve launching Russian cosmonauts on China’s Shenzhou spacecraft — which is very similar to Soyuz — since the CSS is in an orbital inclination that would difficult if not impossible for the Soyuz spacecraft to reach from its current launch site in Baikonur or Russia’s newest launch site, Vostochny.

Russia and China already are cooperating on lunar exploration, planning to build an International Lunar Research Station starting with robotic flights in the 2020s and early 2030s, and eventually human spaceflights in the mid-2030s.


This article has been updated.

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