Shenzhou 13 launches first long-duration Chinese Space Station crew

After a successful launch to the new Chinese Space Station earlier this year and the… The post Shenzhou 13 launches first long-duration Chinese Space Station crew appeared first on

Shenzhou 13 launches first long-duration Chinese Space Station crew

After a successful launch to the new Chinese Space Station earlier this year and the initial 90-day “shakedown cruise” of the Shenzhou 12 crew, three taikonauts launched to the station aboard the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft to begin the first long-duration stay aboard.

Shenzhou 13 launched atop a Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F) rocket at 16:23 UTC (00:23 local time on Saturday), from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, in north-central China.

Shenzhou 13 is the eighth crewed flight of China’s space program, flown by the three taikonauts who were previously named as the backup crew for Shenzhou 12. They include Wang Yaping, who will be the first woman to reside aboard the new space station.  Yaping previously flew aboard Shenzhou 10, becoming the second Chinese woman to fly in space, and is a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

Zhai Zhigang, commanding the mission, is a major general in the People’s Liberation Army and previously flew aboard Shenzhou 7, becoming the first Chinese taikonaut to conduct a spacewalk. Ye Guangfu, a PLAAF pilot and first-time space flier, was selected for the program in 2010.

Shenzhou 13 crew (left to right): Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigagn and Wang Yaping – via Xinhua

Shenzhou 13 is China’s second crewed flight of 2021, marking the first time that China has launched multiple crewed missions in the same year. This illustrates the increasing cadence of the Chinese human spaceflight program, compared to the start of the last decade, when a few years would pass between Shenzhou flights.

Shenzhou 13 Updates
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  • The rapid advance of China’s space program from early flights to long-duration stays aboard an operational space station — which will grow with the addition of future modules in the coming years — builds on half a century of human spaceflight experience and knowledge gained by the United States and the Soviet Union, later Russia.

    Although the progression through milestones such as the first spacewalk and space station development has not been too different from the time it took the United States and USSR to develop similar capabilities, China has achieved this in far fewer flights. For comparison, Shenzhou 13 is the eighth crewed flight for China’s program, while the eighth Soviet and American missions were Voskhod 2 and Gemini 4 respectively. Coincidentally, those missions both saw their nations’ first spacewalks made by Alexi Leonov and Ed White respectively.

    Shenzhou Launch

    Shenzhou 13 launched atop a Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F) rocket — also known as Long March 2F — a human-rated and upgraded version of the now-retired Chang Zheng 2E vehicle which was previously used for geostationary satellite launches.

    Shenzhou lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, using launch pad 43/91, part of the facility’s South Launch Site (SLS). The South Launch Site is the only remaining active orbital launch area, with older complexes to the north no longer in use.

    Chang Zheng 2F lifts off on the Shenzhou 12 mission in June 2021 – via CGTN

    Although Shenzhou 13 and its carrier rocket were only rolled out to the launch pad on 7 October, they have been kept in an advanced state of readiness over the summer in the event an emergency should occur in orbit with the Shenzhou 12 mission. NASA similarly kept Apollo spacecraft on standby for rescue launches during the Skylab program – most notably during the Skylab 3 mission where concerns arose regarding the spacecraft’s thrusters.

    Prior to launch, the crew underwent inspection and was escorted to the launch pad. After donning their launch and entry suits, which are based on the Sokol suits used aboard Russian spacecraft since 1973, they boarded their spacecraft a few hours before liftoff.

    After the ignition of the first stage main engine and four strap-on liquid rocket boosters, the Chang Zheng 2F began the climb into orbit. The two-stage rocket burns hypergolic propellants — unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide. The first stage and boosters burned together for the first 155 seconds of flight before the boosters burned out and separated.

    Shortly afterward, as the vehicle leaves Earth’s atmosphere, the fairing separated from the nose of the rocket, exposing Shenzhou 13 to space for the first time. After the first stage cut off and separated, the second stage ignited to propel the spacecraft into orbit, while the first stage and boosters fell into a drop zone east of the launch site.

    Rendering of fairing separation, exposing Shenzhou to space – via Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

    The second stage’s main engine cut off about eight minutes into the flight once it has reached low Earth orbit, and Shenzhou 13 separated shortly afterward. Following separation, the spacecraft’s solar panels and antennae were deployed. The Shenzhou design draws on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, and this is reflected in the similarity of their early on-orbit operations.

    Space Station Expedition

    A few hours after reaching orbit, Shenzhou 13 rendezvoused and docked with the Chinese Space Station. Soft docking occurred at 22:49 UTC, with hard docking shortly after at 22:52 UTC.

    This flight is scheduled to surpass Shenzhou 12 as the longest human spaceflight in the Chinese program to date, with its crew’s 180-day tour of duty aboard the station set to become the standard for taikonauts on future missions. This is similar to the crewmembers of the International Space Station, who typically remain in orbit for around six months at a time.

    During their stay aboard, the taikonauts will continue with the fitting-out of the space station and conduct experiments aboard the outpost. The mission is also expected to include a spacewalk during which Wang Yaping will become the first Chinese woman to walk in space.

    The Shenzhou 13 crew will use supplies delivered by the recently-arrived Tianzhou 3 cargo ship, including new spacesuits which, at 90 kilograms, are lighter than the suits used by the Shenzhou 12 taikonauts during their EVAs.

    Liftoff of Chang Zheng 7 with Tianzhou 3 – via Xinhua

    Following its six-month stay at the space station, the Shenzhou 13 mission will end in the spring when the spacecraft undocks for the return to Earth. The crew will board the spacecraft’s descent module, which is expected to land in Inner Mongolia, which has been the landing site for previous Shenzhou missions.

    Just as the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft was kept on standby during the Shenzhou 12 mission, the Shenzhou 14 spacecraft will be kept in readiness with its CZ-2F carrier rocket, should an emergency occur that requires the Shenzhou 13 crew to be rescued during their flight.

    The successful completion of the Shenzhou 13 mission will mark the end of the first phase of the “Third Step” of China’s human spaceflight program: the construction of the Chinese Space Station. This follows on from the first and second steps: launching a crewed spacecraft and building a small space laboratory, goals accomplished with the Shenzhou 5 mission in 2003 and Shenzhou 9/Tiangong 1 in 2012.

    After Shenzhou 13, the second phase of the Third Step will see the space station expanded with the addition of new modules. The Wentian and Mengtian modules are currently expected to be launched and installed during 2022, while the Shenzhou 14 mission is underway.

    China plans to use the station to begin its own permanent human presence in space. Future missions to the outpost are expected to include international crewmembers as human activity in low Earth orbit increases dramatically with more missions and more players.

    (Lead photo of rollout of Shenzhou 12)

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    NASA, ULA set to launch historic Lucy mission early Saturday morning

    NASA and ULA (United Launch Alliance) are set to launch NASA’s next asteroid exploration mission… The post NASA, ULA set to launch historic Lucy mission early Saturday morning appeared first on

    NASA, ULA set to launch historic Lucy mission early Saturday morning

    NASA and ULA (United Launch Alliance) are set to launch NASA’s next asteroid exploration mission — Lucy — from Florida early Saturday morning, kickstarting the spacecraft’s 12-year journey through the solar system. Liftoff of Atlas V and Lucy is currently scheduled for 5:34 AM EDT (09:34 UTC) on Saturday, October 16, from SLC-41 (Space Launch Complex 41) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

    The 45th weather squadron at Space Launch Delta 45 currently predicts a 90% chance of favorable weather at launch, with a 10% chance of a weather violation. The primary weather concern for launch is the cumulus cloud rule. The 45th weather squadron gives the backup launch date, Sunday, October 17, a 50% chance of favorable weather at launch.

    Lucy and its mission

    Lucy, led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, will represent the thirteenth mission under NASA’s Discovery Program. The Discovery Program is a NASA solar system exploration program designed to select low-cost, deep space missions with the primary goal of researching a specific scientific area in the solar system.

    During its 12-year primary mission, Lucy will visit a total of eight asteroids. Seven of these asteroids are Trojan asteroids — unique asteroids located at Jupiter’s L4 and L5 Lagrange points, 60 degrees ahead of and 60 degrees behind Jupiter, respectively.

    Lucy’s goal is to thoroughly investigate these Trojan asteroids, which, until Lucy, have never been visited by another spacecraft. These asteroids could be remnants of the very first collisions in our solar system, so investigating them with a mission like Lucy will provide incredible data on our solar system’s formation and past environment.

    The eight asteroids Lucy will visit during its mission. (Credit: NASA)

    What’s more, the mission, upon its completion, will become the first spacecraft to ever visit eight separate planetary bodies in a single mission.

    Atlas V/Lucy Updates
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  • However, for a mission as complex as Lucy, the spacecraft itself has to feature many unique instruments and systems to help it survive the harsh environment of space for twelve years — while simultaneously collecting some of the most valuable information on planetary formation to date.

    When fully deployed in space, Lucy will span a massive 15.8 meters in width,  7.2 meters in height, and 2.78 meters in depth — mostly due to the spacecraft’s giant circular solar arrays.

    Lucy’s solar arrays, once deployed, will be an impressive 7.3 meters in diameter, and will produce 504 watts of power at Lucy’s furthest distance from the Sun. Additionally, these solar arrays will make Lucy the farthest spacecraft to travel from the Sun that solely relies on solar power (all other spacecraft have used nuclear power sources).

    “This particular design (of the circular solar arrays) enables us to stow up closely and tightly next to the spacecraft for launch,” said Katie Oakman, Lucy structures and mechanisms lead, of Lockheed Martin Space. “Having any particular shape other than this really unique design wouldn’t enable us to get to that 51 square meters of active cell area, and still fit within a launch vehicle fairing.”

    Lucy’s dry mass, or the mass of the spacecraft when unfueled, is 821 kg. Lucy’s wet mass, or the fuelled mass of the spacecraft, is 1550 kg.

    Lucy will carry four primary instruments with it to the Trojan asteroids onboard an Instrument Pointing Platform (IPP). The instruments Lucy is carrying are:

    • L’Ralph
    • L’LORRI
    • L’TES
    • High Gain Antenna

    L’Ralph will be used as a color visible imager and an infrared imaging spectrometer. MVIC, the color visible imager, will take standard color images of the Trojans, showing each asteroid’s unique activity and surface characteristics. The infrared imaging spectrometer, known as LEISA, will allow Lucy to see absorption lines on asteroids that show different silicates, ices, and organics that are present on Trojan asteroids to determine their composition and, critically, where in the solar system they formed before they were trapped in Jupiter’s Lagrange points.

    Next is L’LORRI, a high spatial resolution visible instrument that will take monochromatic images across the 0.35 to 0.85 microns wavelength. L’LORRI will provide scientists with incredibly detailed images of the surface of the Trojans — also revealing their sub-surface characteristics via impact craters.

    Lucy in the cleanroom prior to payload encapsulation (Credit: Thomas Burghardt for NSF)

    The L-TES instrument will use an infrared thermal emission spectrometer covering wavelengths of 6 to 75 microns. Having an infrared thermal emission spectrometer will allow scientists to learn more about a Trojan asteroid’s thermal inertia, body heat retainment, and surface material structure.

    Lastly, Lucy will use its high gain antenna to measure the mass of each asteroid it passes using the Doppler shift of the radio signal from the antenna.

    Lucy arrived in Cape Canaveral in late July and was sent to a cleanroom soon after its arrival. In the cleanroom, final tests on the spacecraft were performed, and Lucy was fueled for the final time before being stacked atop its Atlas V rocket.

    Lucy was encapsulated in an Atlas V 4-meter payload fairing on September 29, and was transported to SLC-41 in the following days.

    As Lucy was undergoing final integration, testing, and preparations for launch, ULA was also preparing the Atlas V rocket at SLC-41.

    The Atlas V first stage supporting the launch of Lucy was previously assigned to the now-delayed Boeing OFT-2 (Orbital Flight Test 2) mission of Starliner in July. Following the extended delay of that mission, its Atlas V first stage became available for use.

    The Centaur upper stage, featuring one RL-10 engine, was stacked atop the Atlas first stage on September 16, marking the completion of the Atlas V rocket. No solid rocket motors are being used for this launch, meaning Atlas is launching in its 401 configuration (4-meter payload fairing, 0 solid rocket motors, 1 RL-10 engine on the upper stage).

    Lucy was stacked atop its Atlas V rocket on October 7, and Atlas V and Lucy rolled out to SLC-41 on October 14 for launch.


    In the hours leading up to launch, Atlas V will be filled with RP-1 Kerosene, Liquid Hydrogen, and Liquid Oxygen propellants for use during launch. Meanwhile, the ULA launch teams will monitor the rocket’s systems and Lucy’s condition.

    At T-4 minutes, ULA launch teams will hold the count to undergo a final go/no-go poll for launch. This hold typically lasts 10 minutes and, once Atlas V and Lucy are given the go for launch, the count will resume four minutes prior to liftoff.

    Throughout the last four minutes of the countdown, ULA launch teams will monitor the health of the rocket and spacecraft. Finally, at T-2 minutes, the first stage’s Russian RD-180 engine will ignite, and Atlas V will liftoff from SLC-41.

    At T+1:30, Atlas V will experience Max-Q, short for maximum aerodynamic pressure. Max-Q occurs when the aerodynamic loads on the vehicle are at their highest during ascent.

    Following Max-Q, propellant levels in the first stage will deplete, and the RD-180 engine will be commanded to shut off in an event called booster engine cutoff (BECO). Spacecraft separation will follow six seconds later, at T+4:09.

    Over the next 42 minutes, the Centaur upper stage will ignite its RL-10 engine twice, starting with main engine start 1 (MES-1) at T+4:19. Payload fairing jettison occurs eight seconds after MES-1.

    ULA infographic showing the planned trajectory of Atlas V during launch. (Credit: ULA)

    Centaur will shut down for the final time at T+46:40 seconds and will enter a 12-minute coast phase in preparation for spacecraft separation. Lucy will separate from the Centaur upper stage at T+58:00, kicking off its 12-year mission through the solar system.

    In the minutes following separation from Centaur, Lucy will unfold its massive circular solar arrays and begin generating power to run its instruments and internal systems. Lucy will be on a trajectory that will take it out of Earth’s sphere of influence in the days following launch.

    Lucy will coast through space for a year before it performs the first flyby of its mission — a flyby of Earth in October 2022. The spacecraft will use Earth’s gravity to adjust its orbit, in a maneuver called a gravity assist. Lucy will perform another Earth gravity assist in December 2024 before making the trek to the L4 Trojan asteroids.

    However, before performing its L4 asteroid flybys, Lucy will first flyby asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson on April 20, 2025. The flyby will largely serve as a dress rehearsal for Lucy’s Trojan flybys — just as New Horizons used Jupiter as a practice target ahead of its eventual encounter with Pluto — with the spacecraft using its IPP instruments and internal systems as it would with a Trojan flyby.

    Lucy will arrive at the L4 Trojan swarm (collections of Trojans) in 2027 and will kick off its Trojan flybys on August 12, 2027, when Lucy flies past 3548 Eurybates and its satellite, Queta.

    One month later, on September 15, 2027, Lucy will fly by 15094 Polymele, the second of the seven Trojans the spacecraft will encounter. Next, Lucy will fly past 11351 Leucus on April 18, 2028.

    The last Trojan Lucy will encounter in the L4 swarm is 21900 Orus. Lucy will fly by the Trojan on November 11, 2028, and will exit the L4 swarm in the weeks following the flyby.

    Lucy will then coast back to Earth for another gravity assist on December 25, 2030, slingshotting the spacecraft toward the L5 Trojan swarm.

    Lucy will arrive at the L5 swarm in 2033 and will perform the final flyby of the primary mission on March 3, 2033, when it flies past Patroclus and Menoetius — two, equal mass binary Trojans.

    NASASpaceflight sat down with Lucy’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Hal Levison, to discuss the spacecraft’s daunting trajectory in the weeks leading up to launch. 

    Lucy’s primary mission will conclude with the flyby of Patroclus and Menoetius, but future mission extensions could see Lucy flyby other L4 and L5 Trojans if spacecraft power and fuel systems allow.

    (Lead image: Atlas V at SLC-41 with Lucy — via Stephen Marr for NSF)

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