China launches Shenzhou 16 on post-assembly space station mission
May 29, 2023
— China has launched three astronauts to its space station on the first mission since transitioning from assembly to utilization of the orbiting lab.
Veteran taikonaut Jing Haipeng and first-time fliers Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao lifted off aboard China's Shenzhou 16 spacecraft on Monday (May 29), bound for a five-month stay on board the Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") space station. The crew launched atop a Launch March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 9:31 p.m. EDT (0131 GMT or 9:31 a.m. Beijing time on Tuesday).
At the space station, Jing, Zhu and Gui will at first join the Shenzhou 15 crew of Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, who launched in late November. After a short handover period, Fei, Deng and Zhang will leave the station and return to Earth in June.
Jing, 56, is China's first taikonaut to fly four times into space. Prior to commanding Shenzhou 16, Jing flew on Shenzhou 7 in 2008 and then commanded the Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 11 missions in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Having already logged 48 days in space, this is Jing's first flight to the Tiangong station.
"We have the determination, confidence and ability to complete this mission," Jing said of his crew at a pre-launch press conference on Monday.
Zhu and Gui, who are both 36 years old, were selected with China's third class of taikonaut trainees in 2020. As a flight engineer, Zhu will help Jing fly Shenzhou 16 to and from Tiangong and will perform routine maintenance of the space station, as well as conduct technical tests and experiments.
"I also look forward to looking down on the beautiful Earth from the space station and sharing my space experience with my family," Zhu said.
Gui is China's first civilian and first payload specialist to be launched into space. An astronautics professor at Beihang University in Beijing, Gui will oversee the science experiments that he and his crewmates will run while aboard Tiangong.
"I'm confident that we can complete the mission with the team's joint efforts," he said.
As the first mission to Tiangong devoted solely to utilization and research, the Shenzhou 16 crew will conduct studies in multiple disciplines, including space life sciences and the human body, microgravity physics, astronomy, Earth science and technology demonstrations. Specifically, they are expected to make high-level scientific achievements in the study of novel quantum phenomena, high-precision space time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity and origin of life, according to Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency.
Jing, Zhu and Gui will also conduct spacewalks, or extravehicular activities, to install science apparatus on the exterior of the orbiting lab. The mission is expected to complete the installation of large extravehicular application facilities, including a radiation biological exposure experiment, according to Lin.
Beyond enabling and conducting science, the Shenzhou 16 crew will see the return of the Tianzhou-5 cargo spacecraft, which autonomously undocked from the station on May 5 to make way for the taikonauts' arrival and is set to re-dock after the departure of the Shenzhou 15 crew. At the end of their five-month stay, Jing, Zhu and Gui will hand over the station to the Shenzhou 17 crew in November.
Shenzhou 16 is China's 11th human spaceflight and the eighth to include a crew of three. It is the fifth mission to bring astronauts to the Tiangong space station.
When the Shenzhou 16 taikonauts reached space, they helped set a new record for the most people in orbit at the same time. Including the six members of the Shenzhou 15 and 16 crews, the six Expedition 69 astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station and the four members of the Axiom Space Ax-2 crew, there were 17 people circling Earth, three more than the prior record of 14.
A Long March 2F rocket lifts off with the Shenzhou 16 spacecraft and astronauts Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on May 29, 2023. The crew will be the fifth to live on China's Tiangong space station. (CCTV)
Shenzhou 16 crew members (from left to right) Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao. (China Manned Space Agency)
The Shenzhou 15 crew of Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu aboard the Tiangong station. (China Manned Space)