Divine Vessel makes first fast docking for crewed flight mission
By Deng Xiaoci and Fan Anqi
It was a much shorter and more enjoyable ride for Chinese veteran astronaut Nie Haisheng when he embarked on his third space trip on Thursday morning. The Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft Nie and his two fellow crew members were traveling in pulled off the country’s first-ever automated fast rendezvous and docking with destination orbiting Tianhe space station core module, taking place only six and a half hours after a successful launch.
According to the China Manned Space Agency, the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft completed the rendezvous and docking in an automated and speedy fashion with the Tianhe core module at 3:54 pm on Thursday, just 6.5 hours after the former was launched Thursday morning via the Long March-2F Y12 carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China’s Gansu Province.
The crew’s smooth arrival marks yet another significant milestone in the country’s progress in the field of manned space travel, with the first linear complex comprised of the Tianhe core cabin in the middle, and Shenzhou-12 manned ship and Tianzhou-2 cargo ship at both ends now completed.
The mission’s launch was broadcast live on CCTV, China’s state broadcaster and also livestreamed on China’s social media platforms on Thursday morning, drawing hundreds of millions of views and soon topping the trending list on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo.
Thrilled netizens, after five years of waiting since the last batch of astronauts visited space in 2016, brought the online community into a state of frenzy as they watched the three astronauts boarding the Shenzhou-12 spaceship.
Footage from the surveillance camera installed in the craft’s cabin showed that the crew looked calm and relaxed, as Nie Haisheng, sitting in the middle with his legs crossed, waved at the camera with a big smile on his face.
Tang Hongbo, who had never traveled to space before, seemed more curious and playful – he played with a pen to test the weightless environment in space, and occasionally looked outside the window for his first glimpse of the vast universe.
Liu Boming, who had traveled with Shenzhou-7 into the space, was seen reading on paper materials most of the ride and he also gestured OK to the camera with ease.
Emphasis on speed, safety
Compared with the previous Shenzhou series, the new model has greatly shortened the time of its space travel from launch to docking, reducing the duration from over 40 hours in the Shenzhou-11 mission in 2016 to the current 6.5 hours.
It took the US’ SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which carried four astronauts to the International Space Station in late April, 23 hours to deliver humans to the orbiting lab after the launcher liftoff, which is nearly four times longer than that of China’s Shenzhou-12.
The newly adopted autonomous rendezvous and docking capability was first used in the Tianzhou-2 mission in late May, which helped the craft to realize a docking with the space station’s core module in eight hour. Originally it took two days.
This success also shows that China has developed highly advanced automation technology application in space and space tracking and monitoring capabilities, Wang Ya’nan, editor-in-chief of the Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times on Thursday.
One of the key technological advances lies in the Guidance, Navigation & Control (GNC) subsystem of the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft, the core subsystem in charge of a series of operations from emergency rescue upon launch and altitude control during space flight, to the rendezvous and docking with the space station, the Global Times learned from state-owned space giant China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) on Wednesday.
The GNC system was first adopted onboard China’s manned spaceship in 1999, and has been fully updated based on Shenzhou-11’s technical status. It uses units that had verified from previous launches, including those from the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft, the new-generation manned spacecraft, and the Chang’e-5 spacecraft, while updating system functions to adapt to more complex situations in the space station construction phase, and greatly improving the Shenzhou-12 performance which shows fast, autonomous docking capability.
Developers have also prepared a backup plan that allows manual operations in case an error occurs during the spacecraft’s autonomous docking with the core module. If the measurement or control functions for positioning the craft fails, the three astronauts aboard can observe their position through camera images and perform manual docking with the core module’s cross target.
Making the safety of astronauts a priority, the Shenzhou-12 mission’s research team has also developed a new emergency response system to ensure that the astronauts can be rescued both in space and at the launch site.
According to CAST, two Shenzhou vessels were transported to the launch site, which means that Shenzhou-12 has a backup that will stand by in the event of an emergency. The latter has the capability of being launched in eight and a half days to carry out space rescue work after the launch of the former.
A backup launch vehicle had also been transported to the launch site together with the Long March-2F Y12 carrier rocket, state rocket contractor China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology said, ensuring immediate rollouts of launchers in case crew members at the space station require immediate pickups.
Following docking, the Shenzhou-12 will berth and fly with the Tianhe core module for three months, marking another first in China’s space history.
Unlike China’s previous Shenzhou craft, which returned to Earth from an orbit of fixed altitude, Shenzhou-12 will be able to return from a range of orbital locations, a design that is aimed to enhance the craft’s adaptability and reliability for its journey back to the Earth, and it would also mark a first in China’s space industry.
Largest space population
As observers pointed out, starting Thursday, there will be at least three Chinese astronauts working for a long period in space for the construction of China’s space station and future operations after 2022, and this number of space personnel is no less than that from the US and Russia, both major players in the International Space Station, or from any other countries.
The International Space Station’s crew is now made up of seven astronauts, three of whom are from the US, and two from Russia. The other two are from Japan and the Europe Space Agency.
The three Chinese astronauts will bring the total space population to 10, bringing the number of human beings in space to double digits for the first time.
The Thursday mission has brought China to a world-leading position in terms of in-orbit astronaut population, as the country plans to rotate its astronaut candidates on a routine basis that ensures long-term human stays with no less than three people onboard the space station, which is at the same level as the US and Russia.
The fact that Chinese astronauts are excluded from ISS cooperation has motivated China’s manned space industry to pursue independent development, observers noted.
“China has obviously developed a highly mature training mechanism for professional astronauts, and has also built up a pool of spacemen and spacewomen who are available to execute space flight mission when their names are called… China could compete with space powers like the US in those domains,” said Wang, the magazine editor.
“It is an easy mathematical question. China plans to have three astronauts in orbit working and living for at least three months in its own space station and also to have another three as backup crew, and there will be rotations every few months… It will be difficult for even the US to keep up,” Wang explained.
China’s progress in the manned space field should sound the alarm for the US, and prompt the latter to think twice about its current China policy, which is increasingly seeking the goal of containing and suppressing China’s technological development and even of decoupling from China in the sector, Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times on Thursday.
China has the capability and economic scale to build a relatively independent development system. US efforts to contain China will only slow but never really stop China’s development, Wu noted.
“China is becoming the world’s largest consumer market, which in return will provide even stronger drive for technological development,” he said.
The US could find a win-win situation not only in the space sector, but also in other domains if it works with China, or it will lose the vast Chinese market and also the opportunity for cooperation, Wu warned.
Once completed, China’s space station will be able to operate in orbit for at least 10 years, a period that could be extended to 15 years under proper maintenance, making it the only operational space station when the ISS retires in 2024.