ShenZhou-16 took off with three taikonauts for a five-month mission
The China Space Station recently witnessed its first "heavenly reunion" of six astronauts, known as taikonauts, on Tuesday evening. This event marked a significant milestone as the space station entered its application and development phase in late 2022. Led by mission commander Jing Haipeng, a seasoned taikonaut, the trio from the Shenzhou-16 mission arrived at the space station at 10:22 UTC on Tuesday, where they were warmly welcomed by their counterparts from the previous mission, Shenzhou-15.
This historic moment signified China's second direct handover in orbit between two Shenzhou crews, following the initial handover between the Shenzhou-15 and Shenzhou-14 crews in November 2022. To celebrate the reunion in space, the six taikonauts exchanged hugs and firm handshakes before capturing a group photo together.
According to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the two mission crews will now spend approximately five days living and working together in the space station before the Shenzhou-15 crew returns to Earth. Currently, a total of 17 astronauts are in orbit, including six taikonauts from China, five NASA astronauts from the United States, three cosmonauts from Russia, two from Saudi Arabia, and one from the United Arab Emirates.
The Shenzhou-16 spacecraft, carrying three taikonauts, was successfully launched on Tuesday at 9:31 am from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China. After a flight of around 10 minutes, the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle and entered its intended orbit. The crew members are reported to be in good condition, as stated by the CMSA.
The docking between the Shenzhou-16 spacecraft and the Tianhe core module's radial port took place at 4:29 pm on Tuesday, approximately six and a half hours after the launch. This successful docking maneuver marked the first radial rendezvous and docking conducted under the T-structure formed by the three modules of the space station.
Notably, the Shenzhou-16 mission includes a civilian taikonaut, Gui Haichao, who serves as a payload expert. Gui, a 36-year-old bespectacled specialist, has inspired numerous space enthusiasts in China and abroad. He will be responsible for managing and operating scientific research and experimental projects within the space station, with a focus on payload management and operation. Additionally, the crew consists of flight engineer Zhu Yangzhu, who will handle routine maintenance and repair tasks of the space station, as well as conduct technical tests and experiments.
During the Shenzhou-16 mission, the crew will carry out extravehicular activities, cargo airlock extravehicular tasks, space science experiments, and trials of new technologies. The mission will also involve platform management, taikonaut support system tests, and science education activities, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
The mission faced a challenging docking maneuver due to the increased complexity resulting from the larger combination mass and size of the space station, as well as more intricate aerodynamic effects. The CASC revealed that the changes in motion characteristics of the space station affected the spacecraft's rendezvous and docking control process. However, the Shenzhou-16 mission employed relative attitude and position control methods to overcome these challenges.
Regarding the launch vehicle, the Long March-2F carrier rocket underwent over 20 technical adjustments to improve its performance. The development team focused on enhancing redundancy, equipment advancement, and the rocket's reliability. Localization of various electrical system components on the rocket was promoted to improve independent control. Digital and information technology were utilized to empower the rocket, introducing "intelligence" into data interpretation.
To facilitate real-time communication of test data, a remote measurement and launch support system was constructed, allowing ground control personnel to easily receive relevant data and carry out monitoring and analysis simultaneously.
The Shenzhou-15 crew, who have spent a total of 182 days in orbit, accomplished several significant tasks, including extravehicular activities, space science experiments, and aerospace medical experiments. They obtained valuable experimental data in various fields such as life ecology, material science, and fluid mechanics. Before returning to Earth, the Shenzhou-15 crew will continue their space science experiments, finalize the collection and disposal of experimental samples, and prepare the items that will be brought back in their capsule.
Following their return, it typically takes around six months for astronauts on long-term spaceflight missions to fully recover before they can resume training and potentially participate in another space mission. CMSA spokesperson Lin Xiqiang anticipates seeing the crew in subsequent missions within one to one and a half years.
Jing Haipeng is the commander, on his 4th spaceflight; Zhu Yangzhu will be the engineer-operator on its 1st flight and Gui Haichao will serve as payload specialist, also a rookie.
Major General of the People's Liberation Army, Jing Haipeng is the Chinese astronaut who has flown the most times: in Shenzhou-7, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-11. He also visited two China Space Station prototypes: the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 target spacecraft. Thus, he will be the only astronaut to visit all Chinese orbital stations.
Zhu Yangzhu, born in September 1986 in Jiangsu, enlisted in the Army in September 2005 as 4th Astronaut in the PLA Astronaut Corps, Colonel, former Associate Professor at the PLA Strategic Support Force University of Space Engineering. He was recruited as an astronaut in September 2020 and assigned to this mission in June last year.
Gui Haichao, born in November 1986 in Yunnan and now a professor at Beihang University, was recruited as a payload specialist in September 2020 and assigned to Shenzhou-16 in June 2022 as well. PhD at NUDT – National University of Defense Technology; (he was an associate professor at the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force University of Space Engineering, leaving when he was chosen for the Chinese astronaut corps in 2020). Gui worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Canada (York University, Department of Earth and Space Sciences and Engineering, between 2014 and 2016; at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan), Department of Aerospace Engineering, between 2016 and 2017) before taking up a position at Beihang University.