Chinese spaceship with 3 aboard docks with space station

BEIJING (AP) — Three Chinese astronauts docked with their country’s space station early Wednesday, where they will overlap for several days with the three-member crew already aboard and push the facility to its maximum capacity. Will expand to a larger size.

The docking with the Tiangong station took place at 5:42 a.m. Wednesday, about 6 1/2 hours after the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft lifted off Tuesday night atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

The six-month mission, led by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last in the station’s construction phase, according to the China-Med Space Agency. The station’s third and final module docked. with the station earlier this month, the latest step in China’s efforts to maintain a permanent crewed presence in orbit.

The Shenzhou-15 crew will spend several days working with the existing 3-member crew of Tiangong Station, which will return to Earth after its six-month mission.

Fei, 57, is a veteran of the four-day Shenzhou 6 mission in 2005, the second time China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang make their first space flights.

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The station has now expanded to its maximum size, with three modules and three spacecraft attached with a total mass of about 100 tons.

The Tiangong can hold six astronauts at a time and will take about a week to deliver. This marks the station’s first orbiting crew rotation.

China has not yet said what further work is needed to complete the station. Next year, it plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope, which is not part of Tiangong, to orbit the station in sequence and may occasionally dock with it for maintenance.

Without the attached spacecraft, the Chinese station weighs about 66 tons and is part of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 465 tons.

With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong may one day be the only space station still up and running if the International Space Station is retired as planned in the coming years.

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Although China’s crewed space program is officially three decades old this year, it really began in 2003, when China became only the third country, after the United States and Russia, to use its own resources to send a human into space.

The program is run by the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded almost entirely without outside support. The US kicked China out of the International Space Station. Because of its program’s military ties, though, China has engaged in limited cooperation with other countries’ space agencies.

China has also produced unmanned mission successes: its Yuto 2 rover was the first to explore the uncharted side of the Moon.

China’s Chang’e 5 probe also returned lunar rocks to Earth in December 2020 for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is looking for evidence of life on Mars.

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Officials are reportedly considering an eventual crewed mission to the moon, though no timeline has been offered, even as NASA moves forward with its Artemis lunar exploration program, which aims to send four orbiters around the moon in 2024. Astronauts are to be sent and humans are to be sent there as early as 2025.

While proceeding smoothly for the most part, China’s space program has also stirred controversy. Beijing brushed off complaints that it had allowed the rocket stages to fall uncontrollably to the ground. When NASA accused him of “not meeting responsible standards regarding his space debris.” In this case, parts of a Chinese rocket fell into the Indian Ocean.

China is also reportedly developing a top-secret space plane and features its growing space capabilities in the Pentagon’s latest defense strategy, which says the program is China’s “overall approach to joint warfare.” Sight” is a component.

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