Following the successful launch of Tiangong-2 space module earlier in September, China is now gearing up for the launch of its next crewed space mission, Shenzhou-11. The next step is the selection of what is believed to be two taikonauts, set to take up residency at China’s latest orbital outpost.
Launched on September 15, Tiangong-2 is now in its operational orbit awaiting the arrival of the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft.
The new orbital laboratory entered an initial orbit of 197 x 373 km and after that it executed two orbital maneuvers to raise its orbit to 369 x 378 km altitude.
Meanwhile, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, preparations for the launch of Shenzhou-11 are entering a critical processing flow, with work taking place on the space capsule and its launch vehicle.
The Long March-2F/G that will launch Shenzhou-11 departed its Beijing plant by train bound for Jiuquan on August 3, arriving at the old Chinese spaceport on August 6. The Shenzhou-11 space capsule arrived at Jiuquan via a plane ride on August 13.
After arriving at Jiuquan, both the launcher components and the capsule components were checked and launch preparations began.
At the end of April, two images from the Shenzhou-11 launch simulation suggested that Shenzhou 11 would be launched on October 17.
Other clues also added to the launch window discussion, such as the Swiss experiment on Tiangong-2 that has to be switched off 28 days after the launch of the orbiting laboratory, until T+60 days. This points to a 32 day presence onboard Tiangong-2, starting on October 13.
So, if Shenzhou-11 takes two days to dock to the new orbital laboratory, and with docking taking place on October 13, then the launch will probably take place on October 11. With these figures, the two taikonauts will probably return to Earth on November 14.
The possible crew of Shenzhou-11:
Predicting crews involved with Chinese manned spaceflight is always a difficult and unreliable process.
History shows that there is no pattern, and, for example, being in a back-up crew, for SZ-5, SZ-6 or SZ-7 did not assure participation in the next mission.
The exception to this was SZ-10, which flew with the SZ-9 back-up crew. This was probably because, the missions were very similar, and in Chinese terms, were quite close together, being only 12 months apart.
So far, all the Chinese authorities have announced is that the crew will comprise two men.
This caused some surprise initially, but it appears that the anticipated third crew member has been sacrificed to enable the mission duration to be extended.
They may also want to assess the effectiveness and practicality of a two person crew, for future missions, and against the data they gathered on three person crews, on SZ-9 and SZ-10.
At the time of SZ-9, the Chinese announced that all future crews would include an experienced taikonaut, and it seems reasonable to assume that this requirement is still in place.
Logically, the most likely candidates are Liu Boming, veteran of SZ-7 and the commander of the SZ-10 back-up crew, Liu Wang, or Zhang Xiaoguan, who debuted on SZ-9 and SZ-10 respectively.
As these latter two, both have docking experience, and spent time on TG-1, they would appear to be the most likely choices, but we don’t know what other factors, such as crew compatibility, or their own health, fitness and readiness need to be considered.
We can also eliminate one or two other experienced contenders; Yang Liwei and Nie Haisheng are due to attend the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) Planetary Congress in Vienna on 5th October, so are clearly not involved.
Fei Junlong now occupies a management position within the Astronaut Training Centre and some other members of the 1998 cohort, both flown and unflown, are now over 50 years old, and are probably retired.
The second seat is even less certain. It could be a second ‘veteran’. In fact, the crew could comprise two of the three named above, but this does seem an unlikely option.
It could be an unflown member of the original 1998 group, such as Deng Qingmin or Pan Zhanchun. These two were both thought to have been part of the SZ-10 back-up crew.
This mission could well be their last chance to fly in space, after being in the squad for eighteen years, as they will both be over 50 by the time the Chinese Space Station (CSS) arrives in 2018.
It is possible the planners will want to recognise their long service, which has so far not been rewarded with a spaceflight.
Others from 1998, such as Chen Quan, Wu Jie, who had back-up assignments in the distant past, are probably retired, as they have not featured in crew plans for almost 10 years and are now well over 50 years old.
Perhaps the most likely option is that the second seat will be occupied by one of the five men recruited in 2010, and who became available for assignment, only in 2014. These men are much younger than the 1998 group and are likely to form the core of early CSS crew commanders, but none have flown, so far.
If one of this group flies this mission, it will provide a new ‘veteran’ who will be available to command an early CSS flight.
Of the five candidates, we can safely eliminate Ye Guangfu, as he took part in the ESA CAVES project last July, and his back-up, Chen Dong. This leaves Cai Xuzhe, Tang Hongbo, Lu Zhang as contenders in this scenario.
Is it possible, that a totally new name could emerge. In September 2014, Yang Liwei told the ASE Planetary Congress, in Beijing, that China would select a third taikonaut group, within two years. Since that time, nothing has been mentioned.
Yang implied that this group would be chosen from engineers, doctors and psychologists, already working inside the Chinese space industry.
Although it is possible that this group have now been selected, without any publicity, the chances of one of them being assigned, at this time, seem very low, especially to a two person crew.
On balance, the most logical option would be Liu Wang, or Zhang Xiaoguan, plus one of Cai Xuzhe, Tang Hongbo, Lu Zhang. However the Chinese will probably surprise us, as they have done before.