China launches Shenzhou-15 spaceship, aiming at first in-orbit crew rotation

JIUQUAN, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) -- China launched the manned spaceship Shenzhou-15 on Tuesday night, with three astronauts onboard due to meet with their colleagues on the country's space station and conduct a work handover.

The spaceship, atop the Long March-2F Y15 carrier rocket, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 11:08 p.m. (Beijing Time), according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).

About 10 minutes after the launch, Shenzhou-15 separated from the rocket and entered its designated orbit. The crew members are in good shape and the launch is a complete success, the CMSA declared.

After entering orbit, the Shenzhou-15 spaceship will make a fast, automated rendezvous and dock with the space station combination.

The Shenzhou-15 astronauts will, for the first time in China's space history, conduct an in-orbit rotation with the Shenzhou-14 crew, who were sent to the space station in June, said the CMSA.

The rotation can verify the feasibility of the regular rotation mode that will follow, according to Gao Xu, a senior spaceship designer at the China Academy of Space Technology.

Photos: Wang Jiangbo/ People's Daily

Six astronauts in orbit

The Shenzhou-14 crew plan to complete the in-orbit work handover in a week, and then return to the Dongfeng landing site in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said Ji Qiming, assistant to the CMSA director, at a press conference on Monday.

During the rotation of the two groups, they will complete a work handover concerning the status of the space station combination and materials, as well as the experimental projects. Meanwhile, the Shenzhou-14 crew will continue to make relevant preparations for their return.

With six astronauts in orbit, it's a challenge to allocate resources such as space, equipment and materials rationally for more efficient utilization, according to the China Astronaut Research and Training Center.

There are two sets of kitchen equipment in orbit, allowing the six to prepare a meal at the same time and share food with each other. In addition, two modules of the space station are equipped with two sanitary areas and six sleeping areas, all of which can be used independently, said the center.

The processing capacity of the environmental control and life support system will also be increased to meet the maximum demand from six people.

During the rotation, the information of the two manned spaceships will be transmitted through different lines for exclusiveness and accuracy, Gao said.

In addition, an emergency evacuation strategy based on the situation of two berthing spaceships has been worked out to ensure the safety of astronauts, Gao said.

Intensive tasks

The Shenzhou-15 mission will wrap up the last stage of the space station construction and kick off the first stage of its application and development, Ji said.

During their six-month mission, the Shenzhou-15 crew will carry out tests related to long-term residence in China's space station at its three-module configuration, Ji said.

The crew will also unlock, install and test 15 scientific experiment cabinets, and carry out more than 40 experiments and tests in the fields of space science research and application, space medicine and space technology, Ji said.

They will conduct extravehicular activities (EVAs) three to four times and complete the installation of the Mengtian lab module extended pump sets and the exposure payload platform, Ji said.

The astronauts need to master the operation skills of the new extravehicular spacesuits, node cabin of the Tianhe module, mechanical arms and other facilities and equipment as well as relevant emergency fault dealing methods, according to the China Astronaut Research and Training Center. These requirements call for high standards in terms of physical strength and extravehicular operational skills.

The crew will also verify the exit mode of the cargo airlock cabin of the Mengtian module, and cooperate with the ground to complete six cargo exit tasks. They will perform regular platform testing, maintenance, and space station affairs management, Ji said.

In addition, the Shenzhou-15 crew will carry out in-orbit health protection exercises, training and drills, Ji added.

It is the 27th flight mission since the country's manned space program was approved and initiated, and the fourth crewed mission for China's space station project.

The success of the launch marks the completion of all 12 launch missions planned in the key technology verification and construction phases of the space station.

The space station combination is now in a stable status with all equipment functioning well, ready for the rendezvous-and-docking of Shenzhou-15 and the following crew rotation.