Warm welcome for Shenzhou 16 crew at China’s Tiangong space station
- The spacecraft docks with station’s Tianhe core module 400km above Earth, less than seven hours after successful launch on Tuesday morning
- Experienced commander Jing Haipeng leads two first-time astronauts in ambitious mission to carry out in-orbit tests and experiments
The spacecraft docked with the station’s Tianhe core module 400km (248 miles) above Earth at about 4.29pm, less than seven hours after it launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in northern China.
The Shenzhen 15 crew, who have been at the space station for six months, opened the hatch at 6.22pm and welcomed the new group in.
The China Manned Space Agency declared the launch a success about 19 minutes after the craft blasted off at 9.31am.
Before the launch, Shenzhou 16 commander Jing Haipeng said the mission marked “a new stage of application and development” in China’s space programme. It is Jing’s fourth journey into space, the highest of any of the country’s astronauts.
Beihang University professor Gui Haichao, the first Chinese astronaut to be drawn from outside the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army, is a payload specialist. Also making his first journey into space is flight engineer Zhu Yangzhu.
Wang Huiquan, a specialist advising the space programme on new technology, said Gui’s participation was a landmark event for the programme.
“Gui … is a scientist, not a soldier or a pilot. Entering space as the first payload specialist means that science and application of the space station is in a new era,” the professor at Zhejiang University told Tianmu News, a Chinese-language news portal under the state-owned Zhejiang Daily Press Group.
“His PhD was in aircraft design and his research directions are spacecraft dynamics, navigation and control, space science and experiments.
“The results produced in the experiments in this mission will play a key role in the improvement of China’s spacecraft in the future.”
Wang said Gui was a professional with a wealth of experience in science and aerospace engineering.
The Shenzhou 16 crew will take over from the Shenzhou 15 astronauts, who are due to return to Earth next month.
During their six months in space, the Shenzhou 15 astronauts have been conducting experiments and assembling equipment, research efforts that will be continued by their successors.
The new crew will carry out in-orbit tests and experiments to study novel quantum phenomena, high-precision space time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity and the origin of life, according to state news agency Xinhua.
“The crew will conduct more than 50 in-orbit tests and experiments on space science and application payloads, the highest so far by any Chinese team who has been to space,” Huang Weifen, who is in charge of training China’s astronauts, told Xinhua.
She also said 11 types of food had been added to the crew’s menu, giving them more than 150 food and drink options, in an effort to improve their quality of life in space.
Huang said the new crew members had a device for growing fruit and vegetables in orbit, supplementing their supplies.
They will be on board to witness the redocking of the uncrewed cargo spacecraft Tianzhou 5 and arrival of the Shenzhou 17 mission.
The Tianzhou 6 cargo ship made a resupply mission to the space station earlier this month, the first since the Tiangong’s completion in November.
Speaking before his weekly meeting with his advisers in the Executive Council, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said he wanted to “enthusiastically congratulate” the mission on the success of the launch.
“The Shenzhou 16 manned space mission is the second mission for the country’s manned space programme this year. It is also the space station’s first crewed mission in its application and development stage,” Lee said.
“The country’s crewed space exploration efforts are having continued progress and success, this is making me feel very proud and honoured.”
The city leader also offered his support to around a dozen people from Hong Kong and Macau who have passed the first stage of selections for a payload specialist for the national space programme. They will travel to Beijing next month to begin the second round of selections.
“Hong Kong’s candidates came from government departments, the Hospital Authority, universities and other organisations and companies,” Lee said.
“I want to cheer for the Hong Kong candidates. I expect there will be someone among them who will be able to successfully realise their dreams of travelling to space.”
Additional reporting by Harvey Kong