BEIJING — Three Chinese astronauts docked at their country’s space station early Wednesday, where they will overlap for several days with the three-member crew already on board and expand the facility to its maximum size.
The docking at Tiangong Station took place at 5:42 a.m. Wednesday (4:42 p.m. Tuesday ET), about 6.5 hours after the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft lifted off atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Tuesday evening.
The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and staffed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last in the station’s construction phase, according to the China Manned Space Agency. The station’s third and final module docked with the station a month ago, one of the latest steps in China’s efforts to maintain a constant crewed presence in orbit.
The Shenzhou-15 crew will spend several days working with the existing 3-member crew at Tiangong Station, who will then return to Earth after their six-month mission.
Fei, 57, is a veteran of the four-day Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005, the second time China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang make their first spaceflights.
The station has now reached its maximum size, with three modules and three spacecraft attached for a total mass of almost 100 tons.
Tiangong can accommodate six astronauts at a time and the transfer will take about a week. This marks the station’s first in-orbit crew rotation.
China has not yet indicated what additional work is needed to complete the station. Next year, it plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope, which, although not part of Tiangong, will orbit in sequence with the station and may occasionally dock there for maintenance.
Without the spacecraft attached, China’s station weighs around 66 tonnes – a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tonnes.
With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day be the only space station still operational if the International Space Station retires in the coming years as planned.
While China’s crewed space program officially turns three decades old this year, it really got off the ground in 2003, when China became only the third country after the United States and Russia to send a human into the space using its own resources.
The program is spearheaded by the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded almost entirely without outside support. The United States has barred China from the International Space Station because of its program’s military ties, although China has engaged in limited cooperation with other countries’ space agencies.
China has also had unmanned mission successes: its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon.
China’s Chang’e 5 probe also returned moon rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars.
Officials are reportedly considering a possible crewed mission to the Moon, although no timeline has been offered, even as NASA continues its Artemis lunar exploration program which aims to send four astronauts around the Moon in 2024 and landing humans there from 2025.
While generally proceeding smoothly, China’s space program has also sparked controversy. Beijing has brushed off complaints that it dropped rocket stages to Earth unchecked after NASA accused it of “failing to meet responsible standards for their space debris”. In this case, parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.
China is also reportedly developing a top-secret space plane, and its growing space capabilities feature in the Pentagon’s latest defense strategy, which said the program was a component of China’s “holistic approach to joint warfare.”