China sent three new astronauts to its Tiangong space station on Tuesday, according to state media in Beijing. After six hours of travel, Shenzhou-15 successfully docked.
The trio, which took off at 16.08 Swiss hrs from the Jiuquan Space Center in the Gobi Desert, is led by 57-year-old veteran John Long, former commander of the Shenzhou 6 mission in 2005, and replaces a team that has had it in space since June. For the first time, the changing of the guard takes place in orbit, because Tiangong can now accommodate six astronauts at the same time and will do so for a week, until the three who have already been there return to Earth.
The new goal for the six-month mission is, among other things, to install equipment in orbit, both on and off the station, to conduct science experiments. During this phase, the crew will welcome the cargo ship Tianzhou-6, before handing it over to fellow Shenzhou-16 next May.
Tiangong, which was created due to the United States’ refusal to allow China access to the International Space Station, has completed this mission. Its mass will be 90 tons, or a third of the International Space Station, and it is the jewel of Beijing’s ambitious program, in which billions have been invested in recent years. It should remain in service for about ten years. China, which sent its first man into space in 2003, will land its probe on the far side of the Moon in 2019 (the first of its kind in the world) and a robot on Mars in 2021. Next year, it will put Xuntian, a space telescope, in orbit. For the year 2030 plans to send a manned mission to the moon.
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