China launches Shenzhou-12 shuttle carrying three astronauts, first crew to new space station
China launched three astronauts as its first crew to its new Tiangong space station on Thursday (June 17), the country's first manned spaceflight in nearly five years. The high-stakes mission, named Shenzhou 12, was launched on the back of the Long March 2F rocket, which blasted off as scheduled at 9:22am Beijing time (which translates to 6:52am in Indian Standard Time) at Jiuquan in the northwestern Gansu province. The mission is being led by 56-year-old Nie Haisheng, accompanied by fellow spacefarers Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo who are aboard the spacecraft Shenzhou-12, according to the latest updates.
The Chinese astronauts are set to reach Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), the core module of the new Tiangon space station, on the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, which was launched atop a Long March 2F rocket. Chinese state television is broadcasting the live coverage of the launch of the Shenzhou 12 mission to the new space station.
Among the astronauts in China's space mission, Nie Haisheng has flown to space twice before -- on the Shenzou-6 mission in 2005 and then again on the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013. The former air force pilot is now the oldest Chinese astronaut to go to space, reported news agency Reuters. Liu Boming flew on the Shenzhou-7 space mission in 2008, while this is the first spaceflight for the other astronaut, Tang Hongbo. The three astronauts are scheduled for a three-month stay aboard the core module of the new space station, which was launched to low Earth orbit on April 28.
The three-month stay for Nie, Liu, and Tang will be the longest for any Chinese astronauts, and one focus will be seeing how the men handle their relatively long time in orbit. "The (mission) is longer this time, and not only do we have to set up the core module – this ‘home’ in space – we’ve to carry out a series of pivotal technical tests," Nie told reporters in Jiuquan. Although the Tianhe module has already received a robotic visitor last month -- the Tianzhou-2 cargo craft -- this will be the first time that humans set foot aboard it.
Shenzhou-12, meaning “Divine Vessel”, is the third of 11 missions needed to build China’s space station. The most recent of China's space missions was Shenzhou-11, in October 2016, which carried three astronauts for a one-month stay at a prototype precursor for the new Chinese space station.
Chinese astronauts have had a comparatively low international profile. US legislation bars NASA from any cooperation with China, and Chinese astronauts have not been to the more than two-decade-old International Space Station (ISS), which has been visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities. The ISS may be decommissioned in 2024 if the project does not receive new funding, and China could end up being the operator of the only space station in Earth’s orbit.
(With inputs from Reuters)