China rocket: Expert discusses rocket booster 'heading for Earth'

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A rocket carrying three taikonauts into orbit to finish building China’s Tiangong space station successfully blasted off from the Gobi Desert this afternoon. Launched using a Long March-2F carrier rocket — China’s standard for crewed mission — the Shenzhou-15 mission took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 3.08pm GMT. China Manned Space Agency spokesperson Ji Qiming said that the mission, which will last six months, will be the last “in the construction phase of China’s space station”.

Commanding the mission is Fei Junlong, 57 — a veteran of the four-day Shenzhou-6 mission back in 2005, which was the second time China sent a taikonaut into space. He has been joined on the latest mission by first-time spacefarers Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu.

On arrival at the Tiangong, the trio will overlap with their predecessors — Cheng Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe — of the Shenzhou-14 mission, who arrived on the space station back in June for a six-month stay.

Last month, meanwhile, saw Tiangong’s third and final main module, “Mengtian” launched into orbit and attached to the station. Compared with the core module, Tianhe, and the other experimental module, Wentian, Mengtian can support more research endeavours.

Among the module’s scientific equipment are three state-of-the-art atomic clocks, an ultra-cold atoms facility that can cool atoms to a record breaking less than a billionth of a degree above absolute zero (-459.67F/-273.15C) and a high-temperature facility that can test materials at temperatures of up to 2,912F (1,600C).

When the Shenzhou-15 craft docks with the Tianhe module, the Tiangong station will reach its present maximum capacity, Mr Ji said — with three modules and three spaceships. In the future, however, the station is expected to acquire three more modules.

Next year will also see the launch of the Xuntian space telescope, which will orbit in sequence with the space station and periodically dock for maintenance.

Tiangong will also be at maximum occupant capacity for about a week before the Shenzhou-14 taikonauts return back to the Earth. The crew are expected to land in Inner Mongolia, China.

Tiangong is relatively slight compared to the International Space Station — with its three main modules weighing in at only 66 tons, compared to the 465 tons of its counterpart, whose first module was launched into orbit back in 1998.

With an expected lifespan of some 10–15 years, Tiangoing will likely outlive the International Space Station, which is currently looking at being decommissioned in 2031. China has been excluded from this international effort because of US national security concerns.

Before the 2030s, it is expected that NASA will have already established the Lunar Gateway in orbit around the Moon, to serve as a staging area for missions down the lunar surface.

Via the Artemis programme, NASA plans to return humans to the Moon’s surface as early as 2025. The China Manned Space Agency also has designs on a crewed mission to the Moon, likely by the end of the decade.

China has had recent successes in uncrewed lunar missions — including the Yutu 2 rover, the first to be deployed onto the far side of the Moon, and the Chang’e 5 probe, which is the first to have returned geological samples from the lunar surface to Earth since the seventies.

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The China Manned Space Agency is also planning to dispatch probes to Mars and Jupiter by 2030 — with the former mission to bring back samples for analysis.

The agency has come under fire in recent weeks following the uncontrolled reentry of a Long March 5B rocket booster that was used to help launch the Mengtian module into orbit. While the booster ultimately landed safely in the Pacific Ocean, China’s blasé attitude to its launch debris attracted the scorn of other space powers.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, for example, said: “Once again, the People’s Republic of China is taking unnecessary risks with the uncontrolled rocket stage reentry of their Long March 5B rocket stage. They did not share specific trajectory information which is needed to predict landing zones and reduce risk.”

This, he added, was China’s “fourth uncontrolled reentry since May 2020, and each of these reentries have been the largest in the last 30 years.

“It is critical that all spacefaring nations are responsible and transparent in their space activities and follow established best practices, especially for the uncontrolled reentry of a large rocket body debris — debris that could very well result in major damage or loss of life.”

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