China is making historical achievements in space with the arrival of three Chinese astronauts at the country’s space station The unprecedented space advance is attracting even more attention as the technical specifics are revealed.
On 17th June, the crewed Shenzhou-12 spacecraft reached the parking point 200 meters away from the space station’s core module, ready for docking after entering the orbit for around six hours. By using fast automated technology of rendezvous and docking, China managed to reduce the waiting time of the previous 48 hours to only 6 hours and is determined to squeeze it to 4 hours shortly. This means that if an Airplane takes off from Islamabad Airport and this space aircraft takes off for the space station from the earth at the same time, the spacecraft will reach the space station before we reach the Beijing airport. Isn’t that interesting? Indeed it is.
This is because the Shenzhou series is developed and progressed with every new mission. China has developed key technologies involving capsule returning, extravehicular activity, and rendezvous and docking after six previous manned space missions. The crewed spacecraft has gradually matured to the current design after several modifications and upgrades, shouldering the tasks to commute the astronauts back and forth and It will be ideal when the spacecraft can transfer the astronauts automatically [to the space station] like a self-driving car.
Shao Limin, deputy technology manager of the Shenzhou-12 mission very proudly said that “Shenzhou-12 is what a Shenzhou spacecraft is supposed to be. It’s safe, able to fly over and back with cargo and crew. It can also conduct docking,
The docking process this time was different from the previous missions. In traditional practice, the spacecraft would chase the targeted spacecraft after entering the orbit to dock directly from the back. But this time, the Shenzhou-12 has to first go to the front, take a U-turn and then dock on the front of the space station. Shenzhou-12 is equipped with all kinds of contraptions to ensure such a maneuver can be conducted precisely.
But it won’t be a walk in the park for the crew of this space mission from now on. As crews are expected to stay in space for three to six months, the risks of being hit by space debris are growing. But according to the authorities, they have a backup rocket and spacecraft ready on the launch pad at the same time as they transferred Shenzhou-12. They are confident that if Shenzhou-12 encounters a major problem, they can launch Shenzhou-13 without crew within 10 days for rescue.
The most crucial mission this time is outside the station. Two extravehicular activities will include tests on new-generation spacesuits and equipment installation. Each activity in outer space can last as long as six hours. A robotic arm installed on the core module “Tianhe” is designed for moving astronauts and tools around for different tasks in outer space. Other missions include operation of the core module of the space station, scientific experiments and technology tests in space, and monitoring astronauts’ well-being. Shenzhou-12 crew is the first to use key technologies such as regenerative life support systems, robotic arms, and the technologies for the extravehicular activities in real space.”
One of the first jobs the astronauts are facing is to set up a Wi-Fi connection. A wireless control system is also set up for astronauts to manage all the lighting and amenities, as well as updates on the inventory. They can also video chat with people on Earth and check emails. Astronauts can surf the internet or call anyone on Earth with a network that runs at a maximum speed of 10 gigabits per second.
The Tianzhou-2 cargo spaceship connecting to the core module carries 6.9 tons of supplies. When astronauts entered the core module, the first job was to check the inventory and equipment in the space station. In the space station, there are three individual sleeping sections and one restroom, over 120 different kinds of nutritious space food with a long shelf life. In the exercise section, astronauts can choose between a treadmill and a cycling machine to keep fit.
Another interesting Progression we see is in the food menu of these missions, in Shenzhou-5 Mission Ready-to-use food was provided for which no heating or water addition is required.
Shenzhou-6 Mission, More than 40 kinds of food items were provided along with freeze-dried ice cream after every meal. In Shenzhou-7 Mission, more than 80 kinds of foods were included.
In Shenzhou-9 Mission, astronauts were offered three different meals a day. For Shenzhou-10 Mission, fresh fruits, yogurt, zongzi along other space foods were included. In Shenzhou-11 Mission, the astronauts tried to grow lettuce in space and for Shenzhou-12 Mission, More than 120 kinds of customized space food items are provided according to the preference of astronauts. For the very first time, this mission is equipped with a spacious kitchen including a microwave oven, refrigerator, and water dispenser.
One of the tasks for the Chinese astronauts is to unbox packages shipped to the station’s core module earlier. Tianzhou-2 took propellants and over 160 bags, totaling about seven tons, to support the work and dietary needs of the orbiting crew, including living materials, two extravehicular spacesuits, and payloads. With so much packaging to be removed and sorted out, the astronauts are being aided by an intelligent cargo management system. Each item has a QR code. After scanning, it will show operating guidelines on the mobile terminal, including what the goods are, their functions, where they should be put or installed, and how to use them. Next time they need an item, the astronauts can type in the code to find it.
Also, the data on how much cargo is left and the location can be transmitted simultaneously to ground control. The intelligent system enables both the astronauts and the ground crew to know clearly where the materials are in the space station, ensuring efficient cargo management.
Another interesting thing is that these 3 astronauts will be enjoying a larger space than their predecessors. The airtight cabin of the core module “Tianhe” offers 50 cubic meters of space for the astronauts, over three times bigger than the Tiangong-1 or Tiangong-2 space lab with only about 15 cubic meters. It’s a substantial leap in terms of space for astronauts moving around. The space station will be T-shaped with the core module at the center and two lab capsules separately on each side when the construction is complete. The three-module station can accommodate astronauts with over 100 cubic meters of space for living and working, six times bigger than the Tiangong-2 space lab. Six zones are set for astronauts including working, sleeping, sanitation, dining, healthcare, and exercise.
There are also air conditioners to ensure the temperature, humidity and working temperature of equipment is within the appropriate range. The core module has a life support system to regenerate oxygen and dispose of carbon dioxide and hazardous gas as well as recycle water. It reduces the load of consumption goods sent to space, prolonging the stay of the astronauts
Chinese scientists have devised a system in newly launched core space station module to recycle water from the urine, breath, and sweat produced by astronauts in space, which could save up to 100 million yuan (about 15.5 million U.S. dollars) over a period of six months with three astronauts in orbit. The urine treatment system, a sub-system of the life support system, is undergoing full verification in space for the first time. This means urine can be processed into distilled water, some of which will be used for toilet flushing. The remainder, together with collected breath condensate, can be purified further for electrolytic oxygen generation and experiments.
On Earth, distilling water is a simple process. Contaminated water is boiled and the rising steam is then cooled or condensed to form pure water. The water in urine evaporates at 30-40 degrees Celsius. But in space, this process does not occur as usual. On Earth, the vapor naturally turns to liquid as soon as the temperature drops. But in space, the vapor needs to be refrigerated to cool, which is quite expensive. The liquefaction process also releases heat, another product that scientists find valuable. The heat will be recovered and reused.
Some of the distilled water will be used for toilet flushing and the remainder, together with the collected sweat and breath condensate, will go through an ion-exchange process to remove contaminant ions. The processed water can then be used for oxygen production or space experiments.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday morning 23rd June, spoke with the three astronauts stationed in the country’s space station core module Tianhe, through a video link. Chinese President, while talking with the astronauts via video call congratulated them and said that
“You are the first astronauts stationed in the core module Tianhe and will stay in space for three months. We all care about you very much.”
Aiming high, China is ready to launch Tianzhou-3 cargo craft and the Shenzhou-13 manned spaceship, later this year to dock with “Tianhe”, and another three astronauts will then begin their six-month stays in orbit.