China’s Tiangong space station has just welcomed its third set of visitors.
China’s three-person Shenzhou 14 mission arrived at Tianhe, the core module of the under-construction Tiangong, early Sunday morning (June 5), about six hours after lifting off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. The capsule docked to the Earth-facing port of Tianhe at 5:42 a.m. EDT (0942 GMT), according to a Weibo post from the China Manned Space Agency (opens in new tab).
The three Shenzhou 14 crewmembers — commander Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe — are expected to spend about six months aboard the 54-foot-long (16.6 meters) Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), which launched to low Earth orbit in April 2021.
During their time in orbit, the trio will conduct a variety of scientific experiments and educational outreach activities, perform several spacewalks and install some new equipment inside and outside Tianhe, Chinese space officials have said.
The astronauts will also oversee the arrival of Tiangong’s other two modules, Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), which are scheduled to launch in July and October, respectively.
Wentian and Mengtian will attach on either side of Tianhe, forming a T-shaped orbiting outpost about 20% as massive as the International Space Station (ISS).
The two previous crewed missions to Tianhe, Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou 13, also sent three astronauts to the core module. Shenzhou 12 launched in June 2021 and lasted for three months, and the six-month-long Shenzhou 13 launched in October and returned to Earth in mid-April.
Shenzhou 15 is expected to launch around the end of the year. (It’s tough to know for sure; China tends not to reveal many details about its space missions until they’re just about to happen.) If all goes according to plan, Shenzhou 15 will overlap with Shenzhou 14, marking the Tiangong space station’s first-ever crew handover.
Shenzhou 14’s launch and arrival at Tianhe continued a busy 2022 in human spaceflight. This year has already seen two suborbital space tourism missions conducted by Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, Blue Origin (on March 31 and June 4); the launch of three cosmonauts to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft (on March 18) and the return of a NASA astronaut and two cosmonauts on a different Soyuz (on March 30); Ax-1, the first-ever all-private crewed mission to the ISS (which lasted from April 8 to April 25); the touchdown of Shenzhou 13 (on April 15); the liftoff of Crew-4, SpaceX’s latest contracted astronaut flight to the ISS for NASA (on April 27); and the landing of SpaceX’s Crew-3 (on May 6).