The crew, which is the first to launch into space since 2016, will begin what is expected to be a decade-long Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit
There are soon to be two Space Stations where astronauts live outside of the Earth’s orbit.
On a clear, sunny morning on Thursday in the country’s Gobi Desert, China launched three of their astronauts to rendezvous with the nation’s nascent space station.
They waved to the onlooking cameras in their capsule as their trip outside of Earth’s atmosphere began. Twenty-one minutes into the mission, the director of the launch centre, Zhang Zhifen, announced that the mission was “a complete success.”
If all now goes according to the plan, the astronauts will rendezvous with China’s nascent space station later in the day, to begin what is planned to be a continuous Chinese presence within Earth’s orbit for at least the next ten years.
This comes after Beijing has accused the United States of playing politics and shirking its responsibility by calling for a new investigation into the true origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that was first detected in China in late 2019.
The Chinese space station, named Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace in English, joins the International Space Station in orbit, the project that was led by both the United States and Russia that has been steadily occupied for over two decades.
In China, the construction of the nation’s space station has been treated with unusually public fanfare, which is a reflection of growing confidence from the country’s leadership in its space missions, which have achieved a number of major successes within recent months.
The launch of the Chinese space station comes at a time when both Russia and the United States are in dispute over the future of the International Space Station, and as China and Russia are growing closer in space cooperation.
The astronauts soared into space aboard the Shenzhou-12 shuttle, a spacecraft that will be docking to the two modules that were launched earlier. It will effectively end up becoming another piece of the Tiangong space station, which is orbiting 242 miles, or 390 kilometres, above the planet. (The International Space Station is slightly higher up at 248 miles from Earth.)
The Shenzhou, which was modelled on the Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft, but much larger, consists of three modules, which includes a re-entry craft that will bring the astronauts back to Earth after the mission. In addition to taking up the crew, it is also carrying basic supplies for the long-term stay, including a total of 120 different meals with “balanced nutrition, rich variety, good flavour and a long shelf life,” according to Ji Qiming, who is an assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Agency.
This comes after China is set to report first population decline within the country since records began in 1949 despite the relaxation of the nation’s strict family planning policies, which was meant to reverse the falling birth rate of the most populous country in the world.
A related spacecraft, the Shenzhou-5, carried the first Chinese astronaut into space back in 2003, making China the only country besides the United States and the Soviet Union as well as its successor, Russia, to independently achieve the feat. China has since carried out a further five crewed flights into orbit, the last in 2016.