A duo of Shenzhou-11 taikonauts has entered the Tiangong-2 orbital laboratory after a flawless docking of the two spacecraft at 3:31 a.m. Beijing time on Wednesday, Oct. 19 (3:31 p.m EDT and 19:31 GMT on 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 manned 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 (23:30 GMT Oct. 16; 7:30 p.m. EDT 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 aimed with docking to the Tiangong-2 module 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 at differences from Tiangong-2: at about three miles (five 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 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 reports.
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 the Shenzhou-11 was successfully mated with Tiangong-2, leak test 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.
The hatch opening took place at 6:25 a.m. Beijing time (6:25 p.m. EDT and 22:25 GMT) and Haipeng floated inside the Tiangong-2 module first. He was followed by his crewmate minutes later.
Jing Haipeng is the commander of Shenzhou-11. This is his third spaceflight as he has already flown into orbit twice: in September 2008 aboard the Shenzhou-7, and in June 2012, serving as the commander of the Shenzhou-9 mission. Chen Dong will fly into space for the first time. He was selected as a taikonaut in 2010.
Shenzhou-11 mission is China’s longest stay in space to date. The two-person crew will probably return to Earth on Nov. 14.
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, the laboratory will dock in April 2017 with the new Tianzhou-1 cargo ship that will deliver fuel and supplies.