China launches Shenzhou-15 manned spaceship, realizing historic crew gathering in orbit

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The three astronauts aboard China’s Shenzhou-15 spaceship entered the country’s space station and met with another astronaut trio on Wednesday, a historic gathering that added the manpower at the in-orbit space lab to six for the first time.

China launched Shenzhou-15 on Tuesday night. The manned spaceship, atop the Long March-2F Y15 carrier rocket, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 11:08 p.m. (Beijing Time), according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). About 10 minutes after the launch, Shenzhou-15 separated from the rocket and entered its designated orbit.

At 5:42 a.m. Wednesday, the Shenzhou-15 spaceship conducted a fast automated rendezvous and docked with the front port of the space station’s Tianhe module. The space station was expanded to its largest configuration with three modules and three spaceships, having a total mass of nearly 100 tonnes.

At 7:33 a.m., Chen Dong, the commander of the Shenzhou-14 crew, opened the hatch. The three space station occupants greeted the new arrivals FeiJunlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu with warm hugs and then they took a group picture with their thumbs up, shouting in chorus — “China’s space station is always worth looking forward to.”

The space reunion has kicked off the first in-orbit crew rotation in China’s space history, said the CMSA.

The rotation can verify the feasibility of the regular rotation mode that will follow, according to GaoXu, a senior spaceship designer at the China Academy of Space Technology.

SIX ASTRONAUTS IN ORBIT

The Shenzhou-14 astronauts, who were sent to the space station in June, plan to complete the in-orbit work handover in about five days, and then return to the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

During the rotation of the two groups, they will complete a work handover concerning the status of the space station combination and materials, as well as the experimental projects. Meanwhile, the Shenzhou-14 crew will continue to make preparations for their return, said JiQiming, assistant to the CMSA Director, at a press conference on Monday. With six astronauts in orbit, it’s a challenge to allocate resources such as space, equipment and materials rationally for more efficient utilization, according to the China Astronaut Research and Training Center.

There are two sets of kitchen equipment in orbit, allowing the six to prepare a meal at the same time and share food with each other. In addition, two modules of the space station are equipped with two sanitary areas and six sleeping areas, all of which can be used independently, said the center.

The processing capacity of the environmental control and life support system will also be increased to meet the maximum demand from six people.

During the rotation, the information of the two manned spaceships will be transmitted through different lines for exclusiveness and accuracy, Gao said.—Xinhua