Chinese Astronauts Board China’s Orbiting Tianhe Core Module for the First Time

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JIUQUAN, CHINA - JUNE 16: A Chinese Manned Space Agency worker wears the logo of the new Chinese Space Station Tainhe that is under construction during a press conference at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 16, 2021 at the launch center in Jiuquan, Gansu province, China. (Image: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

On June 17, at 18:48 Beijing time, three Chinese astronauts, including Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo, boarded the orbiting Tianhe core module, marking the first time the Chinese have entered their own space station. 

The astronauts crewed the Shenzhou-12 spaceship to the space station riding atop a Long March-2FY12 carrier rocket launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s Gobi desert at 9:22 a.m. on June 17.

After launch, it took a mere 573 seconds for the spaceship to separate from the rocket and enter its designated orbit. The crew arrived in good condition and successfully docked with the module, leading Chinese authorities to declare the mission a “complete success.”

“The three astronauts are expected to work and sleep according to Beijing time, and stay at the space station for three months. They will return to the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region aboard the return capsule of Shenzhou-12.” reported People’s Daily, a Chinese state-run media organization. 

The astronauts have an array of missions planned including extravehicular activities, assembling equipment, repairing and maintenance operations and, for the first time, the research of rescue capabilities. 

US worries about Chinese space dominance

U.S. Space Command commander General James Dickinson stated in a hearing on April 20, 2021 that “China is building military space capabilities rapidly, including sensing and communication systems and numerous antisatellite weapons. All the while, China continues to maintain their public stance against the weaponization of space,” adding that “similarly concerning, Russia’s published military doctrine calls for the employment of weapons to hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

Of particular concern is a large Chinese robotic arm, attached to a Chinese satellite, that experts believe may be used in the event of hostilities to capture satellites or knock them off course. 

“Shijian-17 was designed to demonstrate a variety of new technologies, including spacecraft propulsion, solar array cells, guidance, navigation and control (GNC), and space-based optical observation of space debris,” NASA stated.  

However, in written testimony for a presentation to the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Dickenson wrote, “one notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

In addition to the Shijian-17, China has successfully deployed space-based lasers that U.S. Air Force Gen. John W. Raymond believes have the ability to disrupt global positioning satellites and are designed to engage in “robust jamming of GPS and communications satellites,” according to his testimony to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. 

The concern remains that should China and the United States get embroiled in conflict, China would have little standing in their way from seriously compromising U.S.  communications and other critical infrastructure.

Dickinson told the U.S. Senate that “the American way of life depends on reliable access to the space-based capabilities that provide the foundation of our economic security and enable our Joint Force to conduct sustained operations in all domains. Every lever of national power…military, informational, diplomatic, financial, intelligence, economic, law, and development — is reliant upon space based capabilities.”

Dickenson believes that China poses a major security challenge and is a “long-term strategic competitor” to the United States whose relationship with the U.S. is becoming “increasingly adversarial.”

In the not so distant future Dickenson fears an increasingly capable and “lethal” Chinese force that “will almost certainly be able to hold U.S. and allied forces at risk at greater distances from the Chinese mainland.”  

China has 11 spaceflight missions scheduled for this year, including three launches of space station modules, four cargo vessel flights and four manned missions. 

The Tianhe space station is expected to be completed by 2022.