Three astronauts head to space station, embarking on 3-month mission

By Zhao Lei at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center | | Updated: 2021-06-17 09:22
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A see-off ceremony for three Chinese astronauts of the Shenzhou XII manned space mission is held at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China, June 17, 2021. [Photo by Su Dong/for]

The biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever constructed, Tianhe is 16.6-meter-long and has a diameter of 4.2 meters. The craft's weight, at 22.5 tons, is equal to the combined weight of 15 standard-size automobiles. It has three parts-a connecting section, a life-support and control section, and a resources section.

[Video/China Academy of Space Technology]

The module will be central to the Tiangong station's operations, given that astronauts will live there and control the entire station from inside. It will also be used to host scientific and technological experiments.

The craft is now connected with the Tianzhou 2 robotic cargo ship that was launched by a Long March 7 rocket from the Wenchang facility on May 29. The two crafts docked with each other the next day.

Tianzhou 2 is now containing packages of living materials and mission payloads for Nie and his crew members to use, and propellants that will be used to refuel the core module.

Based on project plans, the Tianzhou 3 cargo ship will be launched in September to dock with Tianhe and the next month, another three-crew team will fly with the Shenzhou XIII to the module to stay there for six months.

In 2022, two large space labs will be launched to connect with the core module. Moreover, two manned missions and two robotic cargo flights will be made that year to continue construction of the Tiangong station, which is scheduled to become complete and start formal operation around the end of 2022.

One of China's most adventurous space endeavors, Tiangong will consist of three main components -- a core module attached to two space labs -- with a combined weight of nearly 70 metric tons. The entire station is set to work for about 15 years.

Upon its completion, Tiangong will be manned regularly by groups of three astronauts in periods lasting several months. During handovers to new three-astronaut groups, the station will accommodate up to six astronauts.

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