The Chinese Space Station will make it possible for Chinese scientists to conduct experiments that have previously been out of their reach — and with the ISS nearing retirement, it could soon be the only crewed space facility (although Russia is also contemplating a space station of its own). Image Courtesy of the China Manned Space Program.

The launch site sits deep in the Gobi desert.

Surrounded by barren brown plains of sand and rock, hours away from any city, there is only one road to it, cutting through the middle of the desert.

But make no mistake, this swath of Inner Mongolian nothingness is deceiving.

From this site at the the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, three astronauts lifted off on the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft shortly after midnight on Saturday (1600 GMT) on a historic mission, launched by a Long March 2F rocket, CNN World reported.

The crew arrived at its new space station Saturday morning — a major step for the country’s young space program, which is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most advanced.

Though the US still has the world’s leading space program, there’s no doubt that China is the world’s Number 2 space power … and coming on strong.

The European Space Agency, Russia, India, and Israel have suffered Moon or Mars probe failures in recent years. China succeeded with both on the first tries.

The government has invested billions of dollars into the space program — and the payoff has been evident.

China successfully landed an exploratory rover on the moon last December and one on Mars in May. And just last week, an international team of scientists released their findings from the moon rocks China brought back to Earth.

The nation’s ambitions span years into the future, with grand plans for space exploration, research and commercialization.

Meanwhile, China’s Shenzhou-13 crewed spaceship has now successfully docked with the radial port of the space station core module Tianhe at 6:56 Beijing Time (22:56 GMT) on Saturday, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

The spacecraft docked at Tiangong Space Station about six and a half hours after launch.

“Please rest assured that we will definitely succeed in this mission,” Zhai told mission officials as he headed to pad before today’s liftoff. After reaching orbit, Zhai reported the crew was doing fine and all systems were nominal.

The team will live and work at the station for 183 days, or just about six months — the country’s longest mission yet. (Tiangong means Heavenly Palace.)

The crew includes Zhai Zhigang, 55, Wang Yaping, 41, and Ye Guanfu, 41, who will spend the time testing the station’s technology and conducting spacewalks.


Zhai, a former fighter pilot and mission commander, performed China’s first spacewalk in 2008 and has been awarded the honorary title of “Space Hero” by the government.

This will be Ye’s first mission in space; he is currently a PLAAF pilot and a second-level astronaut in the military’s Astronaut Brigade.

Wang, a military pilot, is China’s first female astronaut on board the space station — and will be the first Chinese woman to conduct a spacewalk.

Six months is the standard mission duration for many countries — but it will be an important opportunity for Chinese astronauts to become accustomed to a long-term stay in space and help prepare future astronauts to do the same.

“In the first place, any crewed mission is significant, if only because space travel by humans remains a risky endeavor,” said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

“This will certainly be their longest mission, which is quite impressive when you consider how early it is in their human spaceflight regimen.”

This is the second crewed mission during the construction of the space station, which China plans to have fully crewed and operational by December 2022. The first crewed mission, a three-month stay by three other astronauts, was completed last month.

Six more missions have been scheduled before the end of next year, including two crewed missions, two laboratory modules and two cargo missions.

“For the Chinese, this is still early in their human spaceflight effort as they’ve been doing this for less than 20 years … and for fewer than 10 missions,” Cheng added.

“In the past, the Chinese put up a crewed flight only once every two to three years. Now, they’re sending them up every few months.

“If the Chinese maintain this pace … it reflects a major shift in the mission tempo for their human spaceflight efforts.”

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping attends a news briefing the day before the launch, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert, on October 14. Credit: CNN.

When completed with the addition of two more sections — named Mengtian and Wentian — the station (in low Earth orbit between 340 and 450 km) will weigh about 66 tons, much smaller than the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 450 tons.

Both the ISS and Tiangong use solar power to sustain themselves. 

The ISS’s electrical system uses photovoltaics, where solar cells directly convert sunlight to electricity. Large numbers of cells are assembled in arrays to produce high power levels, but this process sometimes builds up excess heat that can damage spacecraft equipment.

To deal with this, the ISS uses radiators – shaded from sunlight and aligned toward the cold void of deep space – to dissipate heat away from the spacecraft. 

Meanwhile, Tiangong uses two steerable solar power arrays located on each module. These make use of use gallium arsenide photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity.

The station also stores energy for the period when the orbiting station is no longer exposed to the sun. 

At first, these two methods might sound very similar, but they do have important differences. The main one is that Tiangong uses solar arrays whereas the ISS uses “wings.”

These solar array wings –often abbreviated SAW – consist of two retractable “blankets” of solar cells and are the largest ever deployed in space.

Shenzhou 13 will break new ground in another way as well: Wang will become the first woman to live aboard the core module. (The Shenzhou 12 crewmembers were all men.)

This is the second spaceflight for the 41-year-old Wang. She also flew on Shenzhou 10, which visited China’s Tiangong 1 prototype space lab for two weeks in 2013. 

Sources: CNN World, The Guardian, NBC News, Interesting Engineering