China is making no secret of the fact that it wants to be a space superpower.
It has even set a date for achieving that goal:2030. By then it hopes to have put a man on the moon, driven a rover across Mars, and be the proud owner of a permanent space station.
This week it moved another step closer to achieving its ambitions by launching a 30-day manned mission to its temporary space lab, the Tianggong-2.
The two astronauts – Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong – blasted off from a launch centre in Inner Mongolia at 7.30 on Monday morning. Forty-four hours later their space craft, the Shenzhou-11, docked with Tiangong-2, 393km above the earth’s surface.
After entering the module, Jing and Chen stood to attention and saluted the Chinese people. “We send our greetings to everyone across the nation,” state television showed them saying.
The atmosphere around the launch has been more relaxed than in the past. Foreign journalists were invited and the Party’s propaganda chief Liu Yunshan was even glimpsed yawning minutes before the Long March rocket was due to take-off – hardly the behaviour of someone on tenterhooks during the countdown to launch.
Yet the mission – the longest manned space flight that China has undertaken – is important.
It is the last such mission before China puts the first part of its permanent space station into orbit in 2018 and it is also a test run for sending people there in 2022.
It is 49 year-old Jing’s third time in space, while 37 year-old Chen is making his first visit. They’ll have a birthday party while they are up there too, as Jing will turn 50 while on the Tiangong-2.
China first put a man in space in 2003 and since then it has carried out six manned missions, including this one. And though international experts say the country’s space programme got off to a slow start, it is now picking up pace – with 20 launches of different pieces of equipment scheduled this year (that’s two more launches than NASA’s busiest ever year).
Until now the programme has largely aimed to replicate the achievements of the two existing space superpowers, Russia and the US.
But for 2018 China is planning a scientific first – landing a probe on the dark side of the moon, the portion that always faces away from earth.
By 2024 the Chinese could also turn out to be the only country with a space station in orbit, given uncertainty over the fate of the International Space Station (ISS).
Since retiring the space shuttle Atlantis five years ago, the US no longer has the ability to put humans into space and it relies on the Russians to deliver its astronauts to the ISS. Russia has said that after 2024 it wants to take its ISS module and build its own space station – although funding will probably be an issue.
China wasn’t even a space power when the ISS was created in 1998 and the US Congress has blocked it from participating in the programme today. (NASA is banned from cooperating with its counterpart the CNSA over fears it is too close to the Chinese military.)
As a result China is going it alone.
During their 30-day stay on Tiangong-2, Jing and Dong will conduct multiple experiments including monitoring how bone density and blood pressure changes under conditions of microgravity. The two taikonauts will also try to germinate several types of seeds, including red rice and peony, China’s unofficial national flower.
Such experiments will help determine how long people can stay in space in the future and whether they can grow food up there, the Yicai news portal said.
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