China’s Shenzhou-11 Spacecraft Chasing Tiangong-2 Space Station

By | Oct 17, 2016 01:21 AM EDT

Shenzhou 11 crew. (Photo : CCTV)

China's Shenzhou-11 spacecraft with two taikonauts aboard is currently chasing the Tiangong-2 space station after a successful launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 7:30 p.m. EDT (GMT-4) on Oct. 17.

The spacecraft is expected to catch-up to the speeding Tiangong-2 on Tuesday. Its crew, mission commander Jing Haipeng and flight engineer Chen Dong, will maneuver Shenzhou-11 to a safe docking with the space station.

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Once inside Tiangong-2, both men will begin an intense series of experiments for the next 30 days. The men will carry out materials science experiments; medical research; three student experiments; plant growth studies and test orbital repair techniques.

"After entering Tiangong-2, the taikonauts will carry out many experiments, which show the roles, effects and value of humans in many space activities," said Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's Manned Space Engineering Office.

Tiangong-2, originally built as a back-up to Tiangong-1, has a length of 14 meters and a diameter of 3.4 meters. It weighs 8,500 kilograms.

The new station has a larger payload capacity, allowing improved living conditions for its crew of three astronauts. The crew will be able to survive for 20 days without resupply.

"The astronauts can now have a better dining and sleeping environment in the spacelab, and they have also physical exercises for experiments and recreation facilities," said Wu.

"These changes will make the 30-day life for the astronaut in space more comfortable, convenient and more colorful."

Tiangong-2 will also be equipped with a new robotic arm. It's accompanied by a small Banxing-2 satellite for technology demonstrations.

Banxing-2 (the word means Companion Satellite) is a small technology development satellite that will capture images of the new station in orbit. Its predecessor, Banxing-1, accomplished the same mission for the Shenzhou 7 in September 2008.

In April 2017, China's first space cargo ship, Tianzhou-1 carrying fuel and other supplies, will dock with Tiangong-2. The astronauts at this time will carry out experiments related to aerospace medicine, space physics and biology, such as quantum key distribution, atomic space clocks and solar storm research.

They will also conduct a space-Earth quantum key distribution and a laser communications experiment to facilitate space-to-ground quantum communication.

Then there's POLAR, a collaboration between Swiss, Polish and Chinese institutions to study gamma ray bursts, which are the most energetic events in the universe.

At the end of their mission in November, Jing and Chen will undock and return to Earth in the Shenzhou spacecraft's central descent module and land in Inner Mongolia.

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