China sends three astronauts to the International Space Station.

China sends three astronauts to the International Space Station.

The crew will be the first to launch since 2016 and will begin what is intended to be a decade-long Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit. Astronauts will soon be able to dwell in two locations in space. China sent three astronauts to rendezvous with the country’s fledgling space station on a bright, bright Thursday morning in the Gobi Desert. As their journey into space began, they waved to the cameras aboard their capsule. 

Zhang Zhen, the director of the launch center, declared the mission a “complete success” twenty-one minutes into it. If all goes as planned, they will dock with China’s embryonic space station later in the day, kicking off what is expected to be a constant Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit for at least the next decade. 

The Tiangong or Heavenly Palace space station joins the International Space Station, a joint effort spearheaded by the US and Russia that has been continuously manned for more than two decades. The launch on Thursday is the third of 11 planned flights to complete China’s first long-term outpost in space by the end of the year. 

The space station building has been met with unusually public enthusiasm in China, reflecting the country’s rising confidence in its space missions, which have seen a series of significant triumphs in recent months. China’s space station launch coincides with a dispute between Russia and the United States over the International Space Station’s future. 

The astronauts were sent into orbit on the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, which will dock with the two modules launched earlier. After that, it will effectively become another component of the space station, circling Earth at 242 miles (390 kilometers). (At 248 miles, the International Space Station is somewhat higher.)

The Shenzhou comprises three modules, including a re-entry vehicle that will return the astronauts to Earth, and is based on the Soviet-era Soyuz spacecraft. It is carrying essential supplies for a long-term stay in addition to the crew, including 120 different meals with “balanced nutrition, rich diversity, good flavor, and a long shelf life,” according to Ji Qiming, an aide to the commander. 

Shenzhou-5, a similar spacecraft, transported the first Chinese astronaut into space in 2003, making China the only country to do so independently of the United States, the Soviet Union, and its successor, Russia. Since then, China has launched five additional crewed missions into orbit, the most recent in 2016. 

 

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