Shenzhou-12 and three crew members preparing for launch to new Chinese space station

The first crewed mission to the new Chinese Space Station is being prepared for launch.… The post Shenzhou-12 and three crew members preparing for launch to new Chinese space station appeared first on

Shenzhou-12 and three crew members preparing for launch to new Chinese space station

The first crewed mission to the new Chinese Space Station is being prepared for launch. Shenzhou-12, carrying three taikonauts, is scheduled to launch on Thursday June 17 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in northwest China. Liftoff is scheduled for 01:22 UTC.

Shenzhou-12 will be launching on top of the human-rated Long March 2F vehicle, which is based on the retired Long March 2E rocket formerly used to launch geostationary satellites. Also known as the Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F), the launcher is equipped with two stages and four liquid rocket boosters, all fueled by nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH).

These hypergolic fuels are very toxic, which would become a significant problem if the rocket’s remains were to impact a populated area. Future Chinese launch vehicles are being designed to avoid using these propellants.

The vehicle is also equipped with a Soyuz-style fairing, with grid fins and a solid-fueled escape motor on top, to ensure that the crew would be able to escape a failing booster. This technology is based on the abort system used on the Soyuz carrier rocket, which has been used a few times over the years to save flight crews, most recently the Soyuz MS-10 crew in October 2018.

Like the abort system, the Shenzhou spacecraft that will be flying to the new Chinese space station this week draws heavily on Soyuz technology. Shenzhou was approved in 1992 as part of the Chinese human spaceflight initiative known as Project 921, and has a design layout very similar to the long-serving Soyuz spacecraft built in Russia.

Render of fairing separation as Shenzhou-12 ascends towards orbit – via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

In the front of the spacecraft, the orbital module for Shenzhou-12 and future spacecraft contains an androgynous docking ring based on Russian APAS technology (used on ISS), which will be used to dock to the Tianhe core module. In the middle, the descent module containing the crew is a scaled-up version of the Soyuz descent module with a very similar mold line. The rear of the spacecraft is a service module equipped with engines, fuel tanks, and solar panels, much like the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.

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  • The mission will be commanded by Nie Haisheng, who is making his third spaceflight. He has previously flown on the Shenzhou-6 and Shenzhou-10 missions, the latter flying to the Tiangong-1 space station in 2013. Nie, from Hubei province, is 56 years old and is a major general in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). At the end of this mission, he will have spent approximately 114 days in space, becoming the all-time Chinese record holder for the longest time total in space.

    Nie is accompanied by two crew members, referred to as “operators.” The first Shenzhou-12 operator is Liu Boming, 54, from Heilongjiang, who previously flew on Shenzhou-7 in 2008 and became a participant in China’s first ever spacewalk. The  second is Tang Hongbo, who like Liu, is also a PLAAF fighter pilot. Both crewmembers and their commander will stay on board the new space station for approximately 90 days before coming home in September.

    The three crew members, wearing launch and entry suits based on a reverse-engineered Sokol suit provided by Russia, will walk out past military officers and a crowd of well-wishers and board a bus to the launch pad. After boarding the Shenzhou descent module crew compartment, they’ll launch on a 41 degree inclination relativie to the equator, into an orbit that will end up 370 kilometers in altitude to rendezvous with the Tianhe space station core module.

    The crew of Shenzhou-12, from left to right: Operator Tang Hongbo, Commander Nie Haisheng, and Operator Liu Boming

    The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first crewed mission by the Chinese space program in five years and the seventh overall mission of the Shenzhou spacecraft, which conducted its first crewed flight in 2003. For comparison, the seventh U.S. crewed spaceflight was Gemini 3 in 1965, the first flight of the new two seat spacecraft commanded by Gus Grissom, with John Young as the pilot. The seventh Soviet crewed spaceflight was Voskhod 1 in 1964 which flew three cosmonauts in a spacecraft based on the Vostok but with modifications and the ability to fly multiple crewmembers.

    Each crewed Shenzhou mission to date has featured new milestones in Chinese human spaceflight, but Shenzhou-12 is inteded to start an improved cadence of Chinese human spaceflight launches, being the third of 11 missions in the 2021-2022 timeframe to build up the new Chinese space station.

    The first mission in this series was the launch of Tianhe in April. The next was the launch of Tianzhou-2 late last month. The Tianzhou is a robotic cargo spacecraft based on the Tiangong-1 mini space station, and fulfills a similar role to the Chinese program that Progress and Cygnus fulfill for ISS.

    The Tianzhou-2 cargo ship was filled with supplies for the Shenzhou-12 crew and had to dock successfully to Tianhe before the Shenzhou mission could go ahead this month.

    The Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft docking to Tianhe – via CCTV

    The Shenzhou-12 mission will be followed by the Tianzhou-3 robotic cargo flight in September and the Shenzhou-13 crew mission in October, making 2021 the first year with multiple Chinese crewed launches. For 2022, the Chinese space station flight manifest features the Tianzhou-4 and Shenzhou-14 flights in the spring, the Tianzhou-5 and Shenzhou-15 flights in the fall, and the Wentian and Mengtian scientific modules set for summer launches.

    The Shenzhou-12 mission is planned to dock with the Tianhe space station core module as early as six hours after liftoff, though the actual docking time is not yet known. The crew members will enter the station and outfit it for their three-month mission. They will no doubt find the core module, with a living space of 50 cubic meters, roomier than the Shenzhou spacecraft they launched on.

    The Tianhe core module, like the Mir core module and ISS Zvezda module, features six docking ports and a robotic crane to move future additional modules to their correct docking ports. The Wentian and Mengtian science modules will have most of the equipment and capability needed for science and spacewalks, but the Tianhe module will have some experiment capability for the Shenzhou-12 and 13 mission crewmembers to use.

    The Tianhe’s main function is as a control center and living quarters for the station, and the Shenzhou-12 crew will be the first to use the living quarters as well as the control systems. The Shenzhou-12 crew is also planned to conduct two spacewalks during their mission.

    Render of two Shenzhou spacecraft docked to Tianhe – via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

    The Shenzhou-12 crew is expected to be the first of many to reside aboard the Chinese Space Station, and not all occupants are expected to be Chinese. Russia has announced that it will fly Soyuz spacecraft and crews to the Chinese station from Vostochny or Kourou, and the European Space Agency has an agreement with the Chinese space agency CNSA as well for its astronauts and research to use the Chinese station.

    China has also signed an agreement with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to allow the Chinese station to host international experiments, and some of these experiments have already been chosen. In the future, this cooperation could extend to hosting astronauts from developing countries without their own program, along with ESA and Russian crewmembers.

    ESA astronauts Matthias Maurer and Samantha Cristoforetti have trained with the Chinese program and its taikonauts, as part of preparations for a future cooperative spaceflight. As ESA astronaut Maurer stated, “I am very much looking forward to expanding our cooperation with our Chinese friends into space.”

    The Chinese Space Station is also planned to host a Hubble Space Telescope-class orbiting astronomical observatory known as Xuntian, scheduled for launch in 2024. This observatory would fly free in its own orbit to conduct observations and would dock with the station periodically for servicing.

    The Shenzhou-12 mission is another step in China’s plans to become a increasingly prominent spacefaring power. These plans will expand the number of humans in space and are expected include plans for a crewed landing on the Moon sometime in the next 10-15 years.

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    ESA/NASA astronauts complete scaled-back spacewalk to install new solar array on ISS

    Two astronauts ventured outside the International Space Station (ISS) to attempt to install the first… The post ESA/NASA astronauts complete scaled-back spacewalk to install new solar array on ISS appeared first on

    ESA/NASA astronauts complete scaled-back spacewalk to install new solar array on ISS

    Two astronauts ventured outside the International Space Station (ISS) to attempt to install the first of six new Boeing-built solar arrays — part of a program to increase the station’s electrical power generation capacity as its science and research demands increase and future expansion plans continue.

    The Extravehicular Activity (EVA) – officially known as US EVA-74 – began at 12:11 UTC / 08:11 EDT when Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Shane Kimbrough from NASA took their spacesuits to battery power before exiting the Quest Airlock to begin their work.

    A series of issues with Shane’s suit and with unfolding of the IROSA solar panel ended the EVA before all the planned tasks could be accomplished.

    IROSA background

    The eight original Solar Array Wings (SAWs) on the ISS, which each produce around 30 kilowatts (kW) of power for a total of about 250kW are beginning to show signs of degradation, with the oldest array now having been in space since 2000 when the P6 truss and associated arrays was delivered to the station by Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-97 crew.

    With over 20 years of use, and normal degradation of solar arrays, the eight SAWs now only produce around 160kW of power – against a backdrop of rising power demands from the station’s increasing users.

    This led the Station program to develop the ISS Power Augmentation (IPA) plan, which called for adding six additional solar arrays to the station in order to restore the outpost’s power generation to its original levels.

    Under the IPA program, six new ISS Roll Out Solar Arrays (IROSAs) will be added. Whilst the station’s original arrays were folded up and deployed in an accordion-like manner, the IROSAs are a new type of array technology which roll out in a mat-like manner from inside a cylindrical canister.


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  • The IROSAs will be installed on top of six of the station’s existing solar arrays, which will allow the IROSAs to utilize the same sun-tracking motors and be connected into the same electrical system as the current arrays.

    With the IROSAs being around 30% efficient, compared to the 14% efficiency of the original arrays, the IROSAs will generate roughly the same amount of power as the originals despite being only half their size.

    Each IROSA will produce 20kW of additional power, for a total of 120kW across all six arrays.  

    However, because the IROSAs are smaller, they will not completely cover the half of the six SAWs they’ll be installed over. Instead, portions of the original arrays will still be power positive. 

    The unshadowed portions of the original arrays will continue to produce 95kW as a result, making for a combined total of 215kW of power available to the ISS — an increase of nearly a third compared with the outpost’s current levels.

    This first IROSA was launched along with the second aboard the SpaceX CRS-22 cargo Dragon mission that launched from Florida back on 3 June.  The second IROSA — assuming the first

    EVA today goes to plan — will be installed during a following spacewalk currently scheduled for Sunday, 20 June.

    EVA procedures

    For EVA-74, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet was EV1 while NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough was EV2.

    After exiting the Quest Airlock, the first task for the pair was to translate out to the IROSA Flight Support Equipment (FSE). However, in a somewhat sign of things to come, the hatch covering would not close at first, and Shane had to spend more time than planned getting the airlock’s fabric hatch covering configured properly.

    The FSE, pallet on which the pair of IROSAs are attached, was removed from cargo Dragon’s trunk by Canadarm2, also known officially as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) — part of the overall Mobile Base System on the station. Canadarm2 then installed the FSE onto the Mobile Base System (MBS) Payload ORU Accommodation (POA).

    For Pesquet and Kimbrough, after translating to the FSE, the duo began setup of the worksite and released launch restraint bolts on the IROSA.

    However, before the EVA could progress further, two issues were noted with Shane’s suit. First, a sensor in the suit’s sublimator — which provides pressure — registered a spike. Shortly thereafter, the Display and Control Module (DCM) in his suit malfunctioned, necessitating an immediate return to the Quest Airlock to connect back to Station umbilicals to attempt a restart of the unit.

    The “warm restart” of the DCM meant that Shane’s suit momentarily lost its cooling and CO2 scrubbing capabilities; however, this is an acceptable condition, per EVA procedures, when attempting to “warm restart” a DCM. A failure to restart the unit would have meant a premature end to the EVA.

    The restart was successful, and ground teams sent Shane back out to Thomas while managers and engineers continued to discuss the sublimator issue — which itself could have also stop the EVA early. Fortunately, through a series of suit configuration tests, ground teams were able to determine that the sublimator was functioning properly and that a faulty sensor likely triggered an erroneous pressure increase reading.

    Angle showing how the new IROSAs will be deployed over the current arrays. (Credit: NASA)

    With his suit good to go, Kimbrough translated out to the P6 truss installation site — specifically the 2B Integrated Electronics Assembly (IEA) — to begin more setup while Pesquet – mounted to the end of Canadarm2 – held on to the IROSA while he was “flown” out toward the P6 truss.

    Inside the ISS in the Robotics Work Station in the Cupola viewing module, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur controlled Canadarm2; she was the one to physically drive Pesquet out toward the P6 truss.

    Due to the fact that P6 is at the very outboard end of the station, Canadarm2 cannot reach all the way to the worksite, meaning Pesquet had to hand-off the IROSA to Kimbrough, who then in turn held on to it whilst Pesquet dismounted the arm and repositioned.

    Once Pesquet was in position, Kimbrough handed the IROSA back to him. The duo then aligned the IROSA onto the mounting bracket of the “Mod Kit” — which was installed during a spacewalk earlier this year — at the base of the 2B Mast Canister Assembly (MCA).

    The IROSA was first soft-docked onto the mounting bracket before an attempt to unfolded it into its deployment configuration stalled due to interference/blockage from a nearby structure. At this point, already at the six hour mark into the spacewalk, ground teams decided to have the duo photograph the interference and firmly secure the IROSA as is and end the spacewalk.

    Teams will now evaluate a path forward to unfold the array, which must happen before it can be unfurled.

    Thomas and Shane also did not mount four electrical connections between the IROSA and the 2B MCA in order to connect the IROSA into the electrical system of the current 2B solar array as they ran out of time.

    The ISS once the new arrays are installed – via Mack Crawford for NSF L2.

    After returning to the Quest Airlock, the duo took their suits off battery power at 19:26 UTC / 15:26 EDT, concluding the 7 hour 15 minute spacewalk.

    A significant amount of work on Shane’s suit in orbit as well as by a host of teams on the ground who now need to understand the EVA’s issues, the interference/blockage on the IROSA, and how to replan the spacewalk sequence to install the two new array sets.

    Overall, this was the 239th EVA in support of station construction and maintenance and the seventh spacewalk so far this year outside the outpost.

    (Lead image: Placement of the new IROSAs over the existing station solar arrays. Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF L2)

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