Illustration of China's new space station. Credit: China Daily.
China has made more progress in its ability to keep its Taikonauts in space for more than short stays in a Soyuz-like Shenzhou capsule. Much of the western media does not cover Chinese space efforts the way they cover the ISS, but a lot of that has to do with the restrictive nature of the Chinese government. China's space program is in a phase similar to that of the early Soviet space station stages, gradually building bigger space stations and living longer in orbit.
This illustration demonstrates how the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft would appear docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: Xinhua.
The Chinese station was launched in mid-September from the Jiuquan satellite launch center from pad LC-43. It was originally built as a back-up for Tiangong 1, but with changes in the CHinese space program, it now serves a purpose to help Chinese Taikonauts prepare for a much larger space station program in 2018. With modifications made to the station, it will test new technologies needed for China's new modular-design station, similar to the transition Russia made from the Slayut station designs to the Mir station.
Crew of Shenzhou 11. Commander Jing Haipeng and Pilot Chen Dong. Credit: Xinhua.
Shenzhou 11 blasted off from the same pad that launched the station. The mission used the Long March 2F/G (Y11) rocket. Lift off took place on October 14. The government had been somewhat silent on the mission, finally announcing the crew shortly before the spacecraft arrived at the pad. The primary mission for the crew is to successfully dock with the station, and then break the Chinese record for an extended 30-day stay in orbit. The station does come equipped with some science experiments, mostly designed to help the taikonauts perform health studies and experiments. There is also a Chinese version of the robotic arm, which will become very essential to future operations.
Another illustration of a Shenzhou spacecraft docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: ?
On Thursday, November 17, the Shenzhou 11 undocked from the station and returned its crew safely to the Earth. The mission achieved its major goals. On Friday, the spacecraft parachuted to a safe landing in Mongolia.
There is some disagreement in Western Press about future missions to the Tiangong 2. Probably due to mistakes in Chinese government planning announcements. In one scenario, this Shenzhou 11 mission would end up as the only manned mission to the station. Another scenario includes a robotic supply mission to the station, to test the ability of a remote-piloted craft to resupply future missions. And yet another scenario includes a three-man mission later this year.