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China launches a 6-month manned mission as it cements its position as a global space power

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The three astronauts landed on the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft just past midnight local time, launched by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in the Gobi Desert, located in Inner Mongolia.

They will approach the new Chinese space station, Tiangong (meaning Heavenly Palace), six and a half hours after launch. They will live and work at the station for 183 days, or just about six months, the longest mission in the country to date.

The crew includes Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guanfu, who will spend time testing the station’s technology and taking space walks.

Zhai, the mission commander, took China’s first spacewalk in 2008 and the government has been awarded the honorary title of “space hero.”

This will be Ye’s first mission into space; he is currently a second-level astronaut in the Army Astronaut Brigade.

Wang, who also received an honorary title after participating in a 2013 mission, will be from China first female astronaut aboard the space station and the first Chinese to take a space walk.

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

“First, any manned mission is significant, if only because space travel by humans remains a risky endeavor,” said Dean Cheng, a senior researcher at the Davis Institute for Security. National and Foreign Policy. “This will definitely be their longest mission, which is pretty impressive considering the time it takes on its human spaceflight regime.”

This is the second manned mission during the construction of the space station, which China plans to have fully manned and operational in December 2022. The first manned mission, a three-month stay by three more astronauts, went complete last month.

From the left, astronauts Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping, meet with the press at the Jiuquan satellite launch center on October 14 before their departure to Tiangong Space Station.

Six more missions are scheduled before the end of next year, including two manned missions, two laboratory modules and two cargo missions.

“For the Chinese, this is still early in their human spaceflight effort, as they have been doing this for less than 20 years … and for less than ten missions,” Cheng added. “In the past, the Chinese did a manned flight only once every two or three years. Now they send them every few months.”

“If the Chinese keep up that pace … it reflects a major change in the tempo of the mission for their efforts on human spaceflight.”

Prevention until takeoff

CNN rarely acceded to the launch this week, including a series of highly choreographed events and press conferences before Saturday.

The launch site looks as if it had been thrown into the Gobi Desert in the middle of nowhere, hours away from the city, surrounded by barren brown plains of sand and rock. There is only one road that crosses the middle of the desert, then a strip of nothing around it, only a few low mountains in the distance.

The road near the site it was full of signs warning that it was a military zone where unauthorized entry was not allowed. The crew of the country the space program is overseen by a military corps, and many of the launch sites and satellites are run directly by the People’s Liberation Army.

Getting to the launch center was like entering a miniature city, with roads, bedrooms, and extensive stadiums. A billboard was lined with the image of President Xi Jinping, next to the words “Chinese dream, space dream.”

China’s space program came into play late, only established in the early 1970s, years after the American astronaut Neil Armstrong had already landed on the moon. But the chaos of China The Cultural Revolution halted the nation’s space effort and progress was delayed until the early 1990s.

Space administrators chose two classes of astronauts in 1998 and 2010, paving the way for rapid acceleration in space missions. Aided by the economic reforms of the 1980s, the Chinese space program progressed smoothly until the launch of the first manned mission in 2003.

Since then, the government has invested billions of dollars in the space program, and the reward has been evident. China successfully landed one exploratory explorer on the moon last December and one on Mars in May. The first module of the Tiangong space station was launched in April. Last week, an international team of scientists published their findings of the rocks of the moon, China returned to Earth.

“What’s really impressive about China’s space program is the speed with which it’s advanced, on all major fronts, from a fairly low base to the 1990s,” said David Burbach, associate professor of space affairs. national security at the U.S. Naval War College.

“In recent years, the European Space Agency, Russia, India and Israel have suffered failures in the probe of the Moon or Mars; China was successful with the first two attempts,” Burbach told CNN by email . While the U.S. still has the world’s leading space program, he said, “there is no doubt that China is the world’s No. 2 space power.”

China’s ambitions span years into the future, with grand plans for space exploration, research and commercialization. One of the largest companies will be to build a joint China-Russia research station at the South Pole of the Moon in 2035, a facility that will be open to international participation.

Space politics

Even in space it does not escape the politics of the Earth.

Chinese astronauts have long been locked out of the International Space Station due to US political objections and legislative restrictions, which is why China has long been a target to build its own station.

As China’s space program expanded, some countries like Russia have collaborated, but others remain wary. It is unclear, for example, whether the European Union will cooperate with China in space, especially because skepticism in Europe about China is growing after several recent diplomatic controversies and controversies over politics and human rights, Cheng said.

Meanwhile, the US remains separate. It’s not a total ban on interaction, Cheng said (e.g., American and Chinese scientists can chat at international conferences), but the 2011 wolf modification closes the door to true bilateral cooperation in space by banning NASA spend money on interactions. with China.

One of the reasons why space research cannot be separated from Earth policy, and why the issue is so complicated, is because “China’s space program is heavily influenced and its human and lunar programs are overseen by Chinese army, “Cheng said. “Cooperating with China in space means cooperating with the Chinese army.”

The rivalry between the US and China extends from Earth to space. This poses a challenge to American domination

But Burbach, the professor, said the divide between countries “goes too far,” which could block precious scientific progress.

“As things stand, American and Chinese scientists will not even be able to change samples of rocks from the Moon, something the U.S. and Soviets did during the Cold War,” Burbach wrote in an email.

While saying the cooling is “understandable” given the deteriorating relationship between the United States and China, Burbach added that “many American allies are willing to engage with China in space exploration and that the United States probably won’t make much money by taking such a hard line. ”

China may not need US assistance at this time. China is already ahead of Europe and is catching up quickly with the United States, he said.

The Shenzhou-13 launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, shown here on October 15, 2021, is surrounded by barren plains.

“The development of China’s manned space flight is based on our own plan. We have our strategy and our plan,” said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director general of China’s manned space agency. “We didn’t think to compare ourselves to the others.”

And, although it has been excluded from the ISS, the Chinese space station could one day be the main one in operation, as NASA could withdraw the ISS in 2030.

If the U.S. is “unable or unwilling to maintain a human presence in space,” China could gain an advantage and move forward, Cheng said.

This leaves a gap to fill China, and even if the ISS remains open, the Tiangong space station could become a major rival. China will likely allow foreign astronauts from different countries to stay at the station and do experiments, increasing its “international prestige and diplomacy, just like the US,” Burbach said.

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