Chinese spacecraft docks successfully and astronauts enter orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab

Pictures of crew floating in near zero gravity into the lab were broadcast live on state TV as they begin month on board the Tiangong-2

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 8:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 11:33pm

Two Chinese astronauts entered China’s space lab on Wednesday morning after Shenzhou-11, China’s sixth manned spacecraft, successfully docked with the Tiangong-2 orbiting research base.

It marked the beginning of China’s longest stay in an orbiting laboratory. Astronauts Jing Haipeng, 49, and Chen Dong, 37 will spend a month in the lab and conduct a series of experiments.

The spacecraft and orbiting lab successfully docked at about 3 am while the astronauts entered the research facility around three hours later.

After adjusting its orbit five times, the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft arrived 52 km behind the Tiangong-2.

The Shenzhou-11 then effectively “chased” the space lab, while the two decelerated to manoeuvre themselves into position to dock, state television reported.

After the docking procedure, the astronauts in blue uniforms pulled open the door of Shenzhou-11, climbed into a connecting passage and unlocked the door of the space lab.

Pictures were broadcast live on state TV.

The door of Tiangong is a little bit troublesome. An astronaut needs to lie down in the passage to open the door horizontally. The passage is about one metre long and about 80cm wide.

The two “floated” into Tiangong-2 by grabbing the handles installed inside the space lab at about 6.30 am.

The control centre in Beijing burst into applause as the astronauts waved and saluted to a camera.

Shenzhou-11 was sent into space on Monday aboard a Long March-2F Y11 carrier rocket.

The two astronauts have now passed their adaptation period for the weightless environment, a medical researcher at the Astronaut Centre of China told the state-run news agency Xinhua on Tuesday.

The pair have been sleeping well and were in good physical and mental shape, Xinhua said.

During their long stay in space, the astronauts are likely to suffer from a decline in their cardiovascular condition as well as losses to bone and muscle mass, a spokeswoman for China’s space programme said at a press conference before the launch.

To maintain their condition, the crew will be provided with improved exercise and medical facilities as well as psychological support, the spokeswoman said.

The mission is carrying about 100 kinds of food so the astronauts can have different combinations at meals.

The astronauts will work eight hours a day and six days a week, according to Xinhua.

Mission commander Jing is responsible for steering the spacecraft and oversaw the docking procedure with Tiangong-2.

Chen will take care of the lab facilities and carry out experiments.

The mission forms part of China’s plans to build a fully functioning space station by 2022.