China launches Shenzhou-16 mission to the Chinese Space Station

by Adrian Beil

China launched its crewed Shenzhou-16 mission to the Tiangong Space Station on Tuesday, May 30, at 1:31 AM UTC. The Shenzhou spacecraft launched atop a Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F) rocket to carry three taikonauts to the station. The arrival of the Shenzhou-16 crew will mark the beginning of the handover from the Shenzhou-15 to the Shenzhou-16 crew.

Shenzhou-16 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 1, also called Site 901, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China.

Shenzhou-16 and its Crew

Shenzhou-16’s crew was announced just days before the launch of the mission. Taikonaut Jing Haipeng will be the commander, with Zhu Yangzhu serving as the mission’s engineer and Gui Haichao serving as the payload specialist.

The crew of Shenzhou-16. From left to right: Haichao, Haipeng, and Yangzhu. (Credit: CMSA)

Flying on his fourth spaceflight, Jing Haipeng will lead Shenzhou-16. The experienced taikonaut has spent a total of 47 days and 18 hours in space while serving on the Shenzhou-7, Shenzhou-9, and Shenzhou-11 missions. During the Shenzhou-7 mission, Haipeng participated in the first spacewalk ever conducted by China when he assisted taikonaut Liu Boming by monitoring systems inside their capsule.

On Shenzhou-9, he became the first Chinese taikonaut to fly into space multiple times and docked to the Tiangong 1 station in low-Earth orbit. Haipeng also visited the Tiangong 2 station on the Shenzhou-11 mission.

With Shenzhou-16, Haipeng will visit a third space station and become the only taikonaut to ever visit three separate space stations. 

Serving as Shenzhou-16’s engineer, Zhu Yangzhu is a former associate professor at the People Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force Space Engineering University in China. Ranked as a colonel in the Chinese army, Yangzhu became a taikonaut in September 2020 and will fly to space for the first time on Shenzhou-16.

Lastly, Gui Haichao is set to become the first payload specialist in Chinese spaceflight history.  Haichao worked for several years in Canada as a post-doc researcher and would later join Beihang University where he conducted research in planetary sciences and aerospace engineering. Haichao became a taikonaut alongside Yangzhu in 2020, with Shenzhou-16 also being his first spaceflight. Furthermore, Haichao will become the first Chinese civilian to fly into space on Shenzhou-16.

The Shenzhou-16 crew has been ready to fly since Dec. 2022 in the rare case that a rescue mission for the current crew, Shenzhou-15, is needed. The mission is expected to last from May to November 2023.

The official patch for the Shenzhou-16 mission. (Credit: CMSA)

Furthermore, Shenzhou-16 marks the first flight of the second generation Shenzhou spacecraft, which carries a plethora of technical improvements over the first capsule. These improvements include fewer imported parts and more parts from Chinese manufacturers, and improved control mechanisms to make controlling the spacecraft easier for the crew.

The Shenzhou Spacecraft

The Shenzhou spacecraft, which translates to “divine boat,” will be used to carry the Shenzhou-16 crew to and from the Tiangong Space Station. With its design being heavily inspired by the Russian Soyuz capsule, Shenzhou has been flying for 24 years and completed its first flight in 1999.

The spacecraft has a mass of about 7,840 kilograms (though this can vary depending on the actual payload and needs of the mission) and is about 9.25 meters long and approximately 2.8 meters in diameter. Its internal volume is 14 cubic meters and can host up to three taikonauts for travel to and from the Tiangong Space Station. It is certified to stay in space for up to 183 days.

The Shenzhou stack consists of three modules: the orbital module, the re-entry module, and the service module.

The Shenzhou spacecraft. (Credit: Ilya ‘Yadra’ Kharlamov)

Once in orbit, the orbital module serves as a habitation space and hosts many scientific instruments and other payloads. The reentry module, placed in the middle of the spacecraft, features a heat shield for reentry and is the only part of the spacecraft that returns to Earth. The other two parts burn up and disintegrate in the atmosphere during re-entry. The service module hosts the spacecraft’s life support, power supply, and propulsion.

The Tiangong Space Station is the destination for Shenzhou-16. Its name translates to “palace in the sky” and is the largest space station China has built thus far. Tiangong is planned to operate for 10 to 15 years in low-Earth orbit at an inclination of 41.58 degrees and an altitude of  389 kilometers.

Chang Zheng 2F and Launch 

China’s Chang Zheng 2F rocket launched Shenzhou-16 and its crew. The rocket is the backbone of the Chinese human spaceflight program, as it is used primarily to launch Shenzhou missions. CZ-2F has a 100% success rate thus far.

The rocket stands 62 meters tall with a liftoff weight of 464,000 kilograms. It can lift up to 8,400 kilograms into low-Earth orbit. It is powered by four YF-20B engines on the center core, which provide 3,256 kN of thrust at liftoff. Each liquid-fueled booster features one of these engines, bringing the total liftoff thrust to 6,512 kN.

Shenzhou-16’s CZ-2F rolling out to the launch pad. (Credit: CASC)

At liftoff, all four of the liquid-fueled boosters and the center core ignite, lifting the rocket and Shenzhou-16 off of the pad. Roughly 155 seconds into flight, the boosters decoupled from the center core while the center core continued to burn for another few seconds and then separated from the upper stage. From then on, the second stage of the CZ-2F takes over and pushes the Shenzhou capsule into orbit.

The second stage shut down after 460 seconds,  with the spacecraft decoupling from the rocket one minute later, leaving Shenzhou on a trajectory that will intersect the Tiangong Space Station’s orbit. Once at the station, Shenzhou will dock to the station’s Tianhe forward port.

Right after docking, which is expected to happen just a few hours after launch, the crew of Shenzhou-15 will hand over the operations of the station to Shenzhou-16. Taikonauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming, and Zhang Lu have resided on the station since their docking in late Nov. 2022. They’re expected to leave the station in early June, with the current plans showing a landing opportunity on June 3.

Chang Zheng 2C – MUST-1A/B&Luijia-2 01

On Sunday, May 21, at 8:00 UTC, China launched another small payload from Jiuquan. The Macau Science Satellite-1 is a payload with two magnetosphere research satellites for the Macau University of Science and Technology. It will study the magnetosphere of the Earth near the South Atlantic Anomaly region. The launch also carried a secondary payload — the Luojia-2 01 satellite, which is a synthetic-aperture radar satellite from Wuhan University.  The launch was considered a full success.

(Lead image: Shenzhou-16 launch atop CZ-2F. Credit: CASC)

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