In October last year, three Chinese astronauts aboard the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft entered the Tianhe core module of China’s space station, marking the beginning of the country’s historic ‘longest-ever’ crewed mission.
As their six-month stay in orbit draws to a close, the three Chinese astronauts onboard the country’s space station have begun to prepare for their return to Earth. They were on a mission for the construction of the Tiangong space station which is set to become operational later this year.
The trio who spent more than 160 days in the Tianhe core module are anticipated to return in mid-April.
“The crew in orbit and search-and-retrieval team on the ground in Inner Mongolia are all preparing for their return,” the source cited by SCMP said. “So far, all is going smoothly.”
The astronauts — Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu – will return with data from their orbital experiments. The mission, the second of the four manned missions for the Tiangong construction was historic for being China’s longest-ever crewed space mission and for having a woman astronaut for the first time in China’s space history.
The launch was carried out at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, using a Long March-2F carrier rocket. The spaceship performed a quick automatic rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit space station core module Tianhe after entering orbit. The astronauts reportedly worked and lived in the core module on the same schedule as they did on Earth.
Good Job! The Shenzhou-13 astronauts in China's space station core module have completed the manual rendezvous and docking experiment with the Tianzhou-2 cargo craft
— Chinese Mission to UN (@Chinamission2un) January 8, 2022
The Chinese astronauts at Tianhe also conducted live science class for students back home. The first lecture was delivered on December 9 last year while the second was delivered a few days ago on March 23.
Meanwhile, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced that the Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft had been detached from the space station after delivering supplies to the crew and would soon re-enter the atmosphere, according to Xinhua Agency.
Tianzhou 2 will return the waste that has accumulated in the space station as a result of recent missions. The spacecraft, along with the waste it contains, will burn up when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, according to Yang Hong, the principal designer of the space station.
A busy week for the Astronauts
According to a second source of the SCMP, the three astronauts will be “extremely busy” in the next weeks, with “a lot of preparation” required before they start their journey back home.
“They need to restore the cabin environment as thoroughly as possible,” the source said.
“All the fitness equipment, laboratory supplies, spare parts and so on that have been used must be reattached to the walls to prevent them from floating around, and the crew will check the remaining supplies so that the optimal amount to be carried on the Tianzhou 4 cargo craft later this year can be gauged.”
Astronaut Wang Yaping, 41, has entered the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft on top of the Long March 2F rocket.
She will become the first Chinese woman to go out on a spacewalk during the six-month mission on China’s space station.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) October 15, 2021
Until the next crew arrives, the trio will put the station’s air filtering and water regeneration systems to sleep.
The three conducted an emergency evacuation practice, relocating to the return capsule in a simulation of the core module losing pressure after being hit by space debris.
Chinese Space Station – Coming Soon!
China had planned a total of 11 missions between 2021 and 2022 to complete the building of its space station, including three space station module launches, four cargo vessel flights, and four manned missions.
Following the launch of the Tianhe core module in April, the Tianzhou-2 cargo boat in May, the Shenzhou-12 crewed spaceship in June, and the Tianzhou-3 cargo ship in September, the Shenzhou-13 was the fifth mission of 2021.
The Tianzhou-3 cargo ship transported supplies for the Shenzhou-13 mission, including a backup extravehicular spacesuit, supplies for extravehicular activities, components for the space station platform, payloads, and propellants.
The Chinese space authorities hope to complete the station this year, with two more cargo trips and two more crewed missions slated to complete it. The Shenzhou 15 crew will rotate in orbit with their Shenzhou 14 counterparts, allowing the station to accommodate six astronauts for the first time.
The Tianzhou-4 cargo spaceship, the Shenzhou-14 manned craft, two experimental modules, the Tianzhou-5 cargo spaceship, and the Shenzhou-15 manned vehicle will all be launched this year in that order, according to mission plans informed the Global Times.
Tiangong will be a quarter the size of the International Space Station (ISS), which was developed by a group of 16 nations. Because of US opposition, China has been barred from the ISS. After the ISS retires in 2030, Tiangong will be the only space station in the world.
Tiangong is designed to last more than ten years, but with proper maintenance, it can last up to fifteen. By the end of the decade, it is expected to be the sole space station in near-Earth orbit.