China Launches First Woman With New Crew to Space StationChina Launches First Woman With New Crew to Space Station

China has launched a second crew to the country’s new orbiting space station. The mission is one of many challenging U.S. dominance of space exploration.

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China launched a new crew of three astronauts into space on Saturday, beginning the longest trip so far to the country’s orbiting space station, called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace.

The launch, which took place shortly after midnight on early Saturday morning local time in the Gobi Desert, comes a month after the first three occupants completed a three-month stay aboard Tiangong, where they tested the station’s features during a mission that an official on Thursday described as “a complete success.”

This crew is scheduled to remain aboard for six months, which will be the norm for future missions, the official, Lin Xiqiang, a deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency, said at a briefing in Beijing.

The new mission is part of a flurry of activity in China’s space program that has also included the return of soil samples from the moon and the landing of a robotic rover on Mars.

Construction of Tiangong is scheduled to be completed next year. It has already created a rival to the International Space Station, which has operated for more than 20 years but faces an uncertain future. It is another milestone in China’s ambition to make itself a “great space power,” as its top leader, Xi Jinping, put it recently.

Here’s what to know about China’s main projects.

A Rival Space Station

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A model of China’s first space station at a 2010 exhibition in the city of Zhuhai.Credit…Kin Cheung/Associated Press

China launched the main module for its new space station in April. The launch, the first of 11 missions to erect the station, drew more international attention than expected — for the wrong reasons. After reaching orbit, the main rocket booster tumbled ominously back to Earth in what is called an “uncontrolled re-entry.” The debris landed in the Indian Ocean in May, narrowly missing the Maldives and spurring criticism of how China carries out the launches of its heaviest rocket, the Long March 5B.

Since then, Chinese spacecraft have soared into orbit with much less international fanfare, carrying additional modules, supplies and, in June, the first crew. The latest mission is the sixth. China’s first two space stations were short-lived prototypes, but when completed next year, Tiangong is intended to function for a decade or longer.

Mr. Xi previously compared it to the “two bombs, one satellite” exhortation of Mao Zedong’s era, which referred to China’s race to develop a nuclear weapon, mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile and put a satellite in orbit. Like all of China’s accomplishments in space, it is being touted as evidence of the prowess of the Communist Party-run state.

The International Space Station, jointly developed by the United States, Russia and others, is nearing the end of its intended life in 2024. What happens after that is unclear. NASA has proposed keeping the station going for a few more years; Russia has said that it intends to withdraw by 2025.

If the station is decommissioned, China’s could be the only game in town for some time.

Tiangong will be able to house three astronauts for long-term missions and three more for shorter periods. The crew this time includes two veterans of space and one astronaut making his first trip.

Wang Yaping, who in 2013 became the second Chinese woman sent to space, is scheduled to be the first to conduct a spacewalk, one of two or three planned, Mr. Lin said on Thursday.

He reiterated that China would welcome others to visit the station, once it is completed. He listed several countries already cooperating with the Chinese space program. They did not include the United States, which has forbidden NASA to work with Chinese scientists.

The Tiangong Space Station

China is working to complete its new space station in 2022. Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, can support three astronauts, or up to six during crew rotations. See the full graphic >

Shenzhou

Crew ship

Experiment module

Experiment module

Tianhe

Core module

Tianzhou

Cargo ship

10 feet

Shenzhou

Crew ship

Experiment module

Experiment module

Tianhe

Core module

Tianzhou

Cargo ship

10 feet

Shenzhou

Experiment

Module

Experiment

Module

Tianhe

Tianzhou

10 feet

Source: Models published by the China National Space Administration and China Central Television. Note: Finished spacecraft can differ from these initial models and some spacecraft have multiple versions.

Eleanor Lutz

The Moon

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Lunar samples collected by a Chinese probe were put on display in March at the National Museum of China in Beijing.Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In January 2019, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, the part that perpetually faces away from Earth. It was China’s second successful moon landing, after one in 2013.

The latest rover still operates on the moon’s surface today, far beyond the three months it was expected to last. On Sept. 29, the rover reached its 1,000th day of operation, having traveled more than half a mile (839 meters) from its starting point in the Von Karman crater near the moon’s southern pole, according to a statement by the project managers.

Last December, China sent yet another craft to the moon. It scooped up nearly four pounds of rocks and soil near a volcanic feature called Mons Rumker and brought them back to Earth — the first lunar samples since the ones collected by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Some of the samples went on public display in Beijing.

China names its moon probes after Chang’e, a moon goddess in its mythology. Three more are planned by 2027, featuring additional rovers, a flying probe and even a proposed experiment in 3-D printing in space, according to statements from China’s space agency.

The missions are meant to lay the foundation for a lunar research base and visits by taikonauts, as the Chinese call them, in the 2030s. So far, only the American Apollo programs have put people on the moon.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, announced this spring that it would work with China on the construction of a lunar research station using its Luna spacecraft in coordination with coming Chang’e missions. The first Russia mission was planned as soon as this month but has been pushed back at least twice and is now schedule for July 2022.

Future missions between the two countries will aim to bring back lunar samples and land the first building blocks of the base by 2030.

Mars and Beyond

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China’s Mars rover, left, and its landing platform, photographed with a remote camera on the Martian surface.Credit…China National Space Administration

In one go, China’s Mars mission, called Tianwen, or Questions to Heaven, after a classic poem, completed a trifecta of feats that NASA accomplished over a number of years. It reached orbit around the planet in February, safely put a craft on the surface on May 15 and soon afterward released a land rover.

The Soviet Union was the first country to land a craft on Mars, in 1971, but seconds after touching down, the lander stopped communicating, probably because of a sandstorm. It transmitted a single incomplete or indecipherable image. Since then, a number of other attempts to reach the surface, made by several countries, have failed.

Until recently, only the United States had managed successful Mars landings — eight in all, the most recent by the Perseverance rover in February. (China tried to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian rocket that was carrying it failed to get out of orbit, and both crashed back to Earth.)

Four days after China’s lander touched down on Utopia Planitia, a large basin in the northern hemisphere where NASA’s Viking 2 landed in 1976, the country’s space agency released its first photographs from the planet’s surface and said the mission was proceeding as planned.

The agency released two black-and-white photos on May 22 of the rover on the surface. The rover is conducting experiments studying Mars’s topography, geology and atmosphere. One goal is to better understand the distribution of ice in the region, which, in theory, could help sustain future visits by people.

China has said it plans to send a second lander to Mars by 2028 and, ultimately, to bring samples back from the planet. It’s a complex feat that NASA and the European Space Agency are already working on, with hopes that soil and rocks collected by Perseverance can be brought home in 2031. China’s mission could happen this decade, setting up a potential race.

In addition to the possibility of a future crewed mission to Mars, China is planning a single, 10-year mission to collect a sample from an asteroid and pass by a comet. It has also proposed orbiters for Venus and Jupiter. In 2024, it plans to launch an orbiting telescope similar to the Hubble, which launched in 1990.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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