Astronauts fly to the Tiangong space station in China

Three astronauts lifted off from the Gobi Desert in the early hours of Tuesday morning aboard a rocket belonging to China’s National Space Administration. They are now en route to China’s recently completed Tiangong space station. Although three other astronauts were already aboard Tiangong before it was completed, the Shenzhou-15 mission trio will soon replace them for a six-month stay after docking — the first crew change for the station in continuously manned space. Decades of predicted lifespan. As notes, “This will be a first for China, which has never before supported two crews simultaneously on the encircling outpost.”

The launch marks a major milestone in both the literal and figurative sense of the country as a space superpower and comes nearly two weeks after the successful launch of NASA’s Artemis I unmanned launch, the first in a series leading to Americans’ return to the… lunar surface led.

[Related: How Tiangong station will make China a force in the space race.]

As reported by The New York Times and elsewhere, the newcomers will complete installation of facilities and equipment aboard Tiangong in near-zero gravity as the station travels in low-Earth orbit about 240 miles above the planet’s surface. China plans to replace Tiangong’s astronauts every six months, who will conduct a series of experiments and research as the country strives to cement itself as a major space power. One of the first is testing the effects of low gravity and space radiation on seed production and growth, and studying how spiders spin webs in free fall – similar to previous experiments conducted on the ISS. From there, a variety of additional experiments will be conducted by a rotating Tiangong staff over the coming months and years.

Unlike traditional NASA launches in the US The New York Times reported a particularly high level of military security surrounding the event. Photographing civilians or journalists was not allowed, and those approaching the site were sent text messages beginning 50 miles away, including a reading: “Those stealing secrets will surely be caught and beheaded as soon as.” they are trapped! Everyone catches enemy spies and makes great contributions by apprehending them!”

Despite lofty ambitions to eventually travel to both the Moon and Mars, China is currently pursuing these goals alone. NASA has banned cooperation with the nation since 2011 in response to human rights and security concerns, and China’s astronauts have never visited the International Space Station. The New York Times explained that European researchers are however participating in some experiments towards Tiangong, including one with a high-energy cosmic ray detector. A United Nations program is also reportedly offering experimentation opportunities for teams from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Peru and India.

[Related: Why the SLS rocket fuel leaks weren’t a setback.]

China’s space goals remain ambitious, with a view to mining near-Earth asteroid and Mars samples and landing astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade. By 2040, the country hopes to develop a nuclear-powered missile – something many states are also hard at work on.

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