China launches astronauts to Tiangong space station: video and updates

Tall as a 20-story building, a rocket carrying the Shenzhou 15 mission roared into the night sky of the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, carrying three astronauts to a rendezvous with China newly completed space station.

The rocket launch was a split-screen event for China, the latest in a long line of technological achievements for the country, even as many of its citizens have been lash out in anger on the streets against strict pandemic controls.

The air shook as the massive white rocket leapt into a starry, extremely cold night sky shortly before a crescent moon set. Less than nine hours later, the three astronauts aboard Shenzhou 15 docked with the space station and welcomed the three crew members who were already there and had completed construction of the orbital outpost this fall.

This made the expedition to the new space station a milestone for China’s rapidly advancing space program. Tiangong Outpost will now be permanently occupied, like the International Space Station. It’s another marker set by China in its race to catch up with the United States and overtake it as the dominant power in space.

With a sustained presence in low Earth orbit aboard Tiangong, Chinese space officials are preparing to send astronauts to the Moon, which NASA also plans to revisit before the end of the decade as part of its Artemis program.

“It won’t take long; we can achieve the goal of manned moon landing,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program, in an interview at the launch center. China has developed a lunar lander, he added, without giving a date when it might be used.

The launch of Shenzhou 15 comes less than two weeks after NASA finally launched its Artemis I mission following numerous delays. This flight put its unscrewed Orion capsule in orbit around the moon.

At the same time, Beijing has engaged in a charm offensive since the G20 summit in Bali earlier this month, courting European nations and developing countries in particular. This includes space exploration. Chinese leader Xi Jinping made this point in a Nov. 21 letter to a United Nations symposium.

“China is willing to work with other countries to strengthen exchanges and cooperation, jointly explore the mysteries of the universe, make peaceful use of outer space, and promote space technology to better benefit people. from every country in the world,” Xi said. wrote.

While European nations are working with the United States on the Artemis missions and the International Space Station, they have so far shown little interest in Tiangong. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action said in a written response to questions that Germany has no bilateral plans with China for its space station.

And while Germany and Italy each sent an astronaut four years ago to China’s Shandong province to practice flying on a Shenzhou rocket, neither country has announced its intention. to send astronauts on a Chinese rocket. Some European researchers are, however, involved in scientific experiments to be carried out in Tiangong, in particular a high-energy cosmic ray detector project. Indian, Peruvian, Mexican and Saudi researchers have also benefited from research opportunities on the Chinese space station under a United Nations program.

European officials have been wary of closer cooperation in space at a time of growing friction over China’s human rights record and military buildup. They asked China to share very detailed information about its space operations, in part to ensure the safety of astronauts. But China’s space program grew out of the country’s military, like the first US space program decades ago, and has been wary of widespread sharing.

This military connection was on display at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the desert. Camouflaged vehicles were visible in and around the base, and some signage referred not to Shenzhou’s civilian space rockets but to Dongfeng, the ballistic missiles used in China’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

Visitors approaching the launch center received a succession of short automated warning messages on their mobile phones, starting about 80 km away. The warnings said they had entered a military management area where photography was strictly prohibited and national security offenders would be executed.

The first of these messages, in Chinese, provided a cellphone number to report any sightings of strangers or suspicious activity, and ended with a warning: “Those who steal secrets will surely be caught, and will be beheaded when caught.” ! Everyone catches enemy spies and makes a big contribution by capturing them!”

Ji Qiming, deputy director general of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said at a press conference on Monday ahead of the launch of Shenzhou 15 that China was preserving the legacy of the “two bombs one satellite” vision articulated by Mao. This program aimed to create an atomic bomb, an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry the bomb, and a satellite from which to view the world below.

On Tuesday, foreign journalists had exceptional access to the launch center, construction of which began in 1958 and which is generally off-limits even to Chinese citizens.

Two reporters from The New York Times and a photographer from Kyodo News from Japan were allowed to attend the launch, along with a small group of reporters from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao. Visitors from Beijing and other cities first had to spend a week in quarantine at a village hotel about 80 km away and take daily PCR tests. Foreign journalists paid for their travel, accommodation and quarantine.

The quarantine was part of elaborate precautions to prevent the Covid-19 virus from reaching the space center again. An epidemic last year briefly halted work at the site.

The base is 150 miles in the Gobi Desert from the nearest town, Jiayuguan, in northern Gansu province. On the city’s highway, an older China was still visible as a farmer’s small herd of Bactrian camels moved forward, their double humps shaggy with dark brown fur as winter approached.

The area around the launch center has some of the tallest stationary sand dunes in the world, reaching heights of over 1,000 feet. Flat, gray gravel surrounds the base itself, which houses an architectural mix.

A huge vertical assembly building for rockets and modern administrative skyscrapers stands at the front of the base. Behind them are considerably older, low-rise brick buildings with prominent Communist Party insignia, then rows of three-story apartment buildings with peeling white paint. The astronaut living and training quarters used before launches were built in a whimsical Art Deco style with a curious resemblance to Tomorrowland at Disneyland.

The site’s new buildings show how quickly China has caught up with the West in space. Charles Bolden, who led NASA during the Obama administration, said China’s large budgets and long-term planning gave it an advantage over the United States, where Congress was divided on space spending.

China, he said, moved as fast as “anyone would if they had unlimited resources and didn’t have to come back” repeatedly to politicians to approve the spending.

Mr Zhou of the crewed space agency said China had spent money efficiently on its space program and its space station had cost little more than $8 billion. Salaries and living costs are low for the large community of rocket scientists who mostly live and work in isolation at the Jiuquan Launch Center, even their internet communications with the rest of China are restricted for national security reasons.

By contrast, NASA will spend $3 billion this year alone on the International Space Station, which cost more than $100 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime.

Three men were on board the Shenzhou 15 when it lifted off: Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. China has sent women into orbit on previous trips, but chose its oldest and oldest astronaut team experienced in commissioning the recently completed space station over the next six months.

The trio stood to attention as they were introduced at a press conference and delivered crisp military salutes. Mr. Fei, the spaceflight commander, first went into space in 2005 and is 57 years old.

“I am very proud and excited to be able to return to space for my country,” he said.

Huang Weifen, chief designer of astronaut systems, said in an interview that China has added resistance exercise equipment and a larger menu for recent spaceflights, even including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Herbal treatments based on traditional Chinese medicine are carried aboard the space station and also used for medicated baths given to astronauts after they return to Earth, in an effort to limit medical harm from prolonged stays in the space station. space, she added.

Zhou Jianping said the experiments to be carried out by the crew would involve using a highly accurate atomic clock for gravity research and deploying a space telescope for ultraviolet studies of the far reaches of the Earth. universe.

“China’s aerospace industry is developing rapidly,” he said. “China is already a major aerospace power.”

Li you contributed to the research of Jiuquan.

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