Two days after blasting off on a Long March rocket, a Shenzhou spaceship carrying two Chinese astronauts linked up with China’s Tiangong 2 space lab nearly 250 miles above Earth Tuesday to begin a one-month stay inside the mini-station.
Astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong were strapped into their seats for the automated docking Tuesday, and the crew planned to open hatches leading into the Tiangong 2 module within a few hours of arriving.
Following cues from a suite of rendezvous sensors mounted on the forward end of the craft, Shenzhou 11’s guidance computer steered the capsule toward the docking port on Tiangong 2 and made contact around 1924 GMT (3:24 p.m. EDT) during a nighttime orbital pass.
Live video from Shenzhou 11 broadcast by China’s state-run CCTV news channel showed the final approach to Tiangong 2, along with views inside the capsule, where Jing and Chen wore spacesuits for the link-up.
Once the spaceships made contact, a docking ring on Shenzhou 11 retracted to bring the two craft together. The astronauts and ground controllers will ensure the pressure inside both modules is equalized before giving the “go” for Jing and Chen to ingress Tiangong 2.
The astronauts started their journey with a sunrise blastoff Monday from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in a remote part of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region of northwest China.
The upper stage of a Long March 2F launcher released Shenzhou 11 in orbit less than 10 minutes after liftoff, which occurred at 2330 GMT (7:30 p.m. EDT) Sunday, and the spaceship fine-tuned its orbit over the following day-and-a-half to meet up with Tiangong 2.
Unlike China’s last few piloted missions, Shenzhou 11 only carries two astronauts, allowing Tiangong 2 to support a longer stay. Shenzhou 11 should more than double the record for the longest-duration Chinese crewed mission, extending the mark from 15 days to 33 days.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) October 18, 2016
The astronauts will conduct experiments and rehearse procedures for China’s future space station, a facility that will include three 20-ton modules and docking ports for visiting crews and cargo vehicles. The first segment of the station is supposed to launch in 2018, and the orbital complex should be complete by 2022.
Jing and Chen are the first astronauts to visit Tiangong 2, which launched Sept. 15 and completed a checkout before Shenzhou 11’s flight. Two Shenzhou crews flew to the precursor Tiangong 1 space lab — about the same size as Tiangong 2 but lacking new upgrades — in 2012 and 2013.
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