Shenzhou 11 spacecraft successfully docks with Tiangong 2 space laboratory
A duo of Shenzhou 11 taikonauts entered the Tiangong 2 orbital laboratory after a flawless docking of the two spacecraft at 3:31 a.m. China Standard Time Oct. 19 (3:31 p.m. EDT / 19:31 GMT Oct. 18). The two-person crew will spend 30 days aboard the space lab testing advanced life support systems and conducting various science experiments.
The Shenzhou 11 crewed mission, carrying Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, was lifted atop a Long March 2F rocket at 7:30 a.m. local time on Oct. 17 (7:30 p.m. EDT / 23:30 GMT Oct. 16) from Launch Area 4 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert. The taikonauts were sent on a two-day trip in order to dock with the Tiangong 2 module that has been cruising in space since Sept. 15, 2016.
In order to successfully mate with the orbital laboratory, the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft adjusted its position four times on the way to Tiangong 2: at about 3 miles (5 kilometers), 1,300 feet (400 meters), 390 feet (120 meters), and 100 feet (30 meters). To make the docking possible, the spacecraft needed to cut its relative speed to 0.45 mph (0.2 meters per second).
“To us here on Earth, Shenzhou 11 and Tiangong 2 were travelling at 7.9 kilometers per second (17,670 mph) when the rendezvous happened,” China.org.cn reported.
The automated orbital rendezvous took place at an altitude of 244 miles (393 kilometers). Contact of the two spacecraft was confirmed some seven minutes before the docking. After Shenzhou 11 was successfully mated with Tiangong 2, leak tests were performed and pressures were equalized between the two craft.
Sun Jun, deputy chief engineer of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC), told the Xinhua press agency that the precision needed for the orbit prediction and automated docking calculation was much higher than previous docking missions.
Hatch opening took place at 6:32 a.m. China Standard Time on Oct. 19 (6:32 p.m. EDT / 22:32 GMT). Haipeng floated inside the Tiangong 2 module first, followed by his crewmate minutes later.
Jing Haipeng is the commander of Shenzhou 11. This is his third spaceflight. In September 2008, he was aboard the Shenzhou 7, and in June 2012, he served as the commander of the Shenzhou 9 mission. This is Chen Dong’s first flight into space. He was selected as a taikonaut in 2010.
The Shenzhou 11 mission is expected to be China’s longest stay in space to date. The two-person crew will probably return to Earth on Nov. 14.
The Future of Chinese Spaceflight
In order to enable a month-long stay in space, China decided to downsize the crew from three to two. Previous missions, such as Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, consisted of three taikonauts orbiting the Earth for two weeks.
China hopes that Shenzhou 11, together with Tiangong 2, will bring the nation closer toward building its own permanent space station. They will enable testing of key technologies before sending a larger module into orbit. That station is expected to be built sometime between 2018 and 2022.
The Shenzhou 11 crewed vehicle has a mass of about 8.1 metric tons and is composed of an orbital module, a return module, and an engineering module. Although developed indigenously by China, the spacecraft’s design is based on the Russian Soyuz capsule.
The Tiangong 2 space laboratory is 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of 11 feet (3.35 meters). With a mass of 8.5 metric tons, it can accommodate two taikonauts for up to 30 days. The module is similar in size to its predecessor Tiangong 1 as it was initially planned to be used as a backup for the first laboratory.
Tiangong 2 enables testing of key technologies before sending a larger module into orbit. Besides being visited by the Shenzhou 11 crew in April 2017, a new unpiloted cargo ship, called Tianzhou 1, will remotely dock to the lab. It will test autonomous fuel transfer between the two craft.
Video courtesy of CCTV News
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.