Shenzhou-15: Redefining the frontiers of space | By Sultan M Hali


Shenzhou-15: Redefining the frontiers of space

CHINA has successfully launched the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft or “Divine Vessel” manned by three astronauts from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in north-west China for the Tiangong space station to make its first in-orbit crew handover.

It will be the second permanently inhabited space outpost, after the NASA-led International Space Station from which China was excluded in 2011.

The fresh crew will live on the station for six months, taking over from three colleagues who arrived in June 2022.

The returning astronauts include Cai Xuzhe, a female astronaut Liu Yang and Chen Dong who came aboard the Shenzhou-14.

There will be a week-long handover period, in part to trial the station’s ability to house six astronauts.

The returning crew is expected to return to Earth early this month. It is the last of 11 missions required to assemble the station that is expected to operate for around a decade but extendable to 15 years under proper repair and maintenance and run experiments in near-zero gravity.

Voyaging into space is perhaps the fruition of another aspect of the Chinese Dream. It has been a long journey for China, which was isolated for over two decades since the Occident refused to recognize it and had barred it from sharing the fruits of western scientific research and development.

Despite the handicap, China has worked another miracle, leaving the years of famine, food shortage and deprivation behind.

Besides becoming an economic giant and eliminating absolute poverty from the whole of China, the Chinese space research program, under the auspices of the Communist Party of China, has emblazoned new trails of glory, making its nation proud.

The first Chinese satellite, Dong Affang Hong I, was launched in 1970. In 2003, China became the third country to independently send man into space: Yang Liwei, a Chinese astronaut who successfully completed a spacewalk in 2008.

On December 1, 2020, the Chang’e-5 spacecraft landed a probe on the lunar surface and collected soil and rock samples from the lunar surface and surface two feet below the surface, after which the spacecraft ascended to Earth.

The Chinese people were overjoyed to see the Chinese flag fluttering on the moon’s surface.

The Chang’e-5 lunar probe concluded an epic Earth-Moon round trip, and managed to carry some 2 kilograms of lunar samples back to Earth on December 17, 2020, making China the third country in the world to achieve such a feat, and the first in more than four decades.

The success of the Chang’e-5 lunar mission also involved several breakthroughs in China’s space technology, including the first-ever sample collection on the lunar surface, a complex takeoff from the rough lunar terrain, and most challenging of all, the rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, which are all believed to build a solid foundation for future manned lunar missions.

The significance of this mission is that by 2029, China wants to establish a space station on the moon to make it easier for humans to travel to the moon.

China launched a mission to Mars called Zhurong, in May 2021, in which a rover or vehicle used for space exploration landed successfully on the Martian surface.

The Chinese spacecraft has conducted a detailed survey of Mars, specifically exploring the frozen lakes on the Red Planet.

Notably, China plans to send its first crewed mission to Mars in 2033 and wants to build a base there.

The Shenzhou-15 team is led by 57-year-old Fei Junlong who previously commanded the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005.

He is accompanied by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. Over the next decade of the Tiangong’s operation, it is expected China will launch two crewed missions to the station each year.

China has opened the selection process for astronauts for future missions to applicants from the “special administrative regions” of Macau and Hong Kong, who were previously excluded.

The significance of this permanent space station of China and its impact on the future merits discussion.

The objectives of the space mission are that during their stay on the space station, the astronauts have carried out scientific experiments onboard as well as walk-in-space and repair-the-station activities.

Secondly, they have prepared for additional space station modules. Extravehicular activities (EVAs) are an important part of the Shenzhou missions. There are numerous devices to be mounted or adjusted outside the station.

The Shenzhou crews have conducted EVAs from the main airlock of the station, located in the Wentian module and airlock of Tianhe-1 will act as a backup in the future.

In the Mengtian module, there is an airlock, but this is to transfer goods between the cabin and outer space.

EVAs are risky tasks for all space capable nations, and the lifespan of EVA spacesuits also has a limit.

Using the cargo airlock will not only save resources, but ensure the safety of astronauts. Although China was a late starter in the global competition for the space station, yet, it is making up for lost time through building technologically advanced space stations.

The rationale behind China building a station is that since the Chinese economy began to pick up speed in the 1990s, China began allocating resources to science and technology, especially to research in space.

Resultantly, the Chinese space programme also provides opportunities for liaison with Russia and European countries, including the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

China is a proud nation and its national pride is also linked to its space programme. President Xi Jinping has extended his support behind the country’s space endeavours and the Chinese state media presents the “space dream” as one step in the path to “national rejuvenation”.

Thus, the Shenzhou-15 mission and China’s plans to conquer space, develop reusable carrier rockets, build nuclear-powered space shuttles will make it a leading space power.

What is more gratifying is the fact that China is committed to the peaceful use of outer space and is also exchanging its discoveries.

Hopefully, the good of all mankind will be included in it and the whole world will benefit from Chinese space research.

—The Author is a Retired Group Captain of PAF, who has written several books on China.