May 30, 2023
BEIJING – The Shenzhou XVI spacecraft will set out on Tuesday morning to transport three Chinese astronauts to the Tiangong space station, the China Manned Space Agency said on Monday.
The journey will be the maiden flight of China’s third generation of astronauts, and the first time a Chinese civilian has traveled to space.
Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the agency, gave details of the flight at a news conference on Monday morning at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China. The crew members of Shenzhou XVI — mission commander Major General Jing Haipeng, Colonel Zhu Yangzhu and Professor Gui Haichao — will be lifted in the spacecraft by a Long March 2F carrier rocket at 9:31 am on Tuesday from the Jiuquan center in the Gobi Desert.
On Monday morning, the Long March 2F rocket began being filled with propellants at the service tower, Lin said.
After the Shenzhou XVI enters orbit, rapid rendezvous-docking mode will be activated for the spacecraft to approach and then connect with the radial port on the Tianhe core module, according to the official.
Jing’s team will take over the Tiangong space station from their peers from the Shenzhou XV mission — commander Major General Fei Junlong, Senior Colonel Deng Qingming and Senior Colonel Zhang Lu — who arrived on Nov 30.
The Shenzhou XVI crew members will stay inside the Tiangong station for around five months and are scheduled to return in November. They will carry out several spacewalks during the mission to mount equipment outside the station and also conduct maintenance work, Lin said.
Other major tasks include assisting with the docking and departure of visiting spacecraft such as cargo ships and a space-based telescope, conducting scientific experiments and demonstrations of technology, and hosting science lectures, Lin said.
Jing and Zhu are members of the People’s Liberation Army’s Astronaut Division, while Gui is a doctoral supervisor at Beihang University’s School of Astronautics’ Department of Spacecraft and Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing. All three crew members each have a doctorate.
It will be Jing’s fourth spaceflight, making him China’s most experienced astronaut.
Zhu, the spaceflight engineer, and Gui, the mission’s science payload specialist, are the first members of the country’s third generation of astronauts to enter the space.
During their stay inside the station, Jing and Zhu will be mainly responsible for operating and maintaining the entire space station and performing technological tests. Gui has been assigned to operate scientific devices and conduct experiments, Lin said.
Until the latest mission, all Chinese astronauts who have taken part in spaceflights have been members of the People’s Liberation Army. The first two generations of astronauts were selected from experienced Air Force aviators.
However, the third generation of astronauts includes civilians. It is comprised of 17 men and one woman split into three groups: seven spacecraft pilots; seven spaceflight engineers; and four science payload specialists.
Yang Yuguang, a senior space industry observer and vice-chair of the International Astronautical Federation’s space transportation committee, said that the inclusion of a spaceflight engineer and a scientist in the flight crew is the most important feature of the Shenzhou XVI mission.
“Professor Gui is engaged in the research of spacecraft dynamics and control technology, so I believe he has advantages when it comes to doing related experiments onboard the Tiangong station,” he said.
Pang Zhihao, an expert on space exploration technology and a renowned writer on spaceflight, said: “The presence of an engineer and a scientist will enable more sophisticated experiments and tests to take place inside the space station because the new astronauts must have received more training for science and technology operations.”
Lin said China will launch new modules in the future to connect with the Tiangong station to create more room and better conditions for astronauts to live and conduct scientific work. After that, Tiangong’s configuration will be expanded from the current “T” shape to a cross shape.
Yang said the first of the new modules is expected to be a hub with multiple docking ports, which will allow more science labs to connect with the station.
Earlier this month, the Tianzhou 6 robotic cargo spaceship was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province to transport materials for the next manned missions. It was the first spacecraft to visit the Tiangong space station this year.
Orbiting about 400 kilometers above Earth, Tiangong on Monday consisted of three major components, the Tianhe core module and Wentian and Mengtian science lab modules, and it was also connected to two visiting craft, the Shenzhou XV crew ship and the Tianzhou 6 cargo ship.