China launches second crewed mission to build space station
JIUQUAN, China, October 16 (Reuters) – China on Saturday launched a rocket carrying three astronauts – two men and a woman – to the central module of a future space station where they will live and work for six months, the longest orbit for Chinese astronauts.
A Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft, which stands for “Divine Vessel”, lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province at 12:23 am (4:23 pm GMT Friday).
The spacecraft successfully docked at the space station port at 6:56 a.m. (9:56 p.m. GMT) and the astronauts entered the space station’s central module at 10:03 a.m., the manned Chinese Space Agency said.
China began construction of the space station in April with the launch of Tianhe – the first and largest of the station’s three modules. Slightly larger than a city bus, Tianhe will be the headquarters of the completed space station.
Shenzhou-13 is the second of four crewed missions needed to complete the space station by the end of 2022. During the first crewed mission which ended in September, three more astronauts remained in Tianhe for 90 days.
On the final mission, astronauts will test Tianhe on key technologies and robotics needed to assemble the space station, check on-board life support systems, and conduct a host of science experiments.
The mission commander is Zhai Zhigang, 55, of the first group of Chinese astronaut trainees in the late 1990s. Born into a rural family with six children, Zhai carried out the first spacewalk in China in 2008. Shenzhou-13 was his second space mission.
“The most difficult task will be the long-term stay in orbit for six months,” Zhai said at a press conference Thursday. “It will demand higher demands (on us), both physically and psychologically.”
He was accompanied by Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu, both 41 years old.
Wang, also born into a rural family, is known among her colleagues for her tenacity. The former Air Force pilot first traveled to space in 2013, to Tiangong-1, a prototype space laboratory.
She is the second Chinese female astronaut in space, after Liu Yang in 2012.
Shenzhou-13 is the first space mission of the third astronaut, Ye.
After the crew returned to Earth in April, China plans to deploy six more missions, including deliveries of the second and third space station modules and two final crewed missions.
China, banned by US law from working with NASA and by extension on the International Space Station (ISS), has spent the past decade developing technologies to build its own.
With the ISS due to retire in a few years, the Chinese space station will become the only one in Earth orbit.
China’s space program has come a long way since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that the country could not even launch a potato into space. China became the third country to send a man into space with its own rocket, in October 2003, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
Reporting by Carlos Garcia and Xihao Jiang; additional reporting by Josh Horwitz; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Nick Macfie and William Mallard
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