China’s Tiangong space station is the next space outpost to take residence in Earth’s orbit. And with ISS retiring soon in the coming years, Tiangong will remain as the sole permanently inhabited space outpost.
On 29 November,three astronauts joined their three colleagues (from a June launch) when they reached the Tiangong space station via the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. This mission will facilitate China’s first in-orbit crew handover in the nearly-complete space station. In fact, China Manned Space Administration stated that the new crew’s responsibility is to equip the space station with instruments and facilities to aid the outpost’s completion, targeted to be by the end of the year.
The three new astronauts will spend their first week on board the space station taking on the duties from the previous crew, who will then return to Earth after transitioning their tasks. As the last of the 11 missions, the Shenzhou-15 crew, made up of astronauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will continue their stay in Tiangong for six months to complete building the space station by the end of December.
With the crew rotation marking the beginning of science operations, they will also be performing more than 40 scientific experiments in space science, space medicine and space technology, and around three extravehicular activities. As the space station is expected to be in operation (and continuously inhabited) for at least ten years, China is expected to send two crewed missions and two cargo missions to the station annually while dispatching international experiments to the station via a UNOOSA initiative.
The space station and associated missions demonstrate China’s determination to design a space programme that meets international standards. Not only will Tiangong be the only habitable space outpost in orbit for a while after the retirement of the ISS, this space station marks the revival of China in the space industry after it was banned from the International Space Station by the United States in 2011.