Shenzhou-17 Crew Launches to Tiangong Space Station

by Adrian Beil

China launched the crewed Shenzhou-17 mission to the Tiangong Space Station on Thursday, Oct. 26, at 3:14 AM UTC. Launched via a Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F) rocket, the three crew members set sail for the station over the following hours after liftoff. This will begin the handover from the Shenzhou-16 crew to the Shenzhou-17 crew.

The Crew

The crew for the mission, with commander Tang Hongbo, was announced on Oct. 25, just a day before the launch. Tang Hongbo was joined by Operator Tang Shengjie and System Operator Jiang Xinlin, who was flying to space for the first time.

The crew of Shenzhou-17. (Credit: CASC)

Part of the mission will be “experimental station repair/maintenance,” performed during an EVA. The exact details of this operation are unknown at this point in time.

Tang Hongbo

Tang Hongbo. (Credit: CASC)

Tang Hongbo (48) is the commander of the Shenzhou-17 mission. This is his second spaceflight, after the Shenzhou-12 mission in 2021, where he served as a crew member. Tang Hongbo joined the astronaut corps of China in 2010 as a tier-one astronaut. He is a member and fighter pilot of the People’s Liberation Army and will be the first taikonaut to visit the Tiangong Station twice.

He joined the PLA Air Force in September 1995, and quickly advanced to group commander in a fighter jet regiment. Initially, he was also part of the backup crew for Shenzhou 11 before flying on 12. He was part of the first EVA on the Tiangong Space Station, which he performed with Liui Boming in July 2021. His time in space so far was 92 days, 4 hours, and 11 minutes.

Tang Shengjie

Tang Shengjie. (Credit: CASC)

Tang Shenghie (34) joins the mission as a crew member. He has been in the PLA Air Force since 2008 and served time as a fighter pilot there. He joined the astronaut corps of the People’s Liberation Army in 2020. His rang in the army is Lieutenant Colonel. 

Shenzhou-17 will be his first spaceflight. He is one of two rookie members on this mission.

Jiang Xinlin

Jian Xinlin (35) is the third member of the Shenzhou-17 crew. Like the other two, he is also a pilot for the PLA Air Force, and just like Tang Shengjie, he holds the title of Lieutenant Colonel.

Jian Xinlin. (Credit: CASC)

He joined the astronaut corps in the same year as Tang in 2020 and has been in the Air Force since 2006. Before his career as an Air Force pilot, he was trained to be a tank driver but later changed careers to the Air Force.

The Shenzhou Spacecraft

Shenzhou, which translates to “divinite boat,” was the spacecraft for this mission. It will carry a crew of three to the Tiangong Space Station. Heavily inspired by the Russian Soyuz capsule, Shenzhou has completed several flights since its first flight in 1999. 

It masses about 7,840 kilograms, depending on exact mission specifications, and is about 9.25 meters long and 2.8 meters in diameter. It features an internal volume of 14 cubic meters and is designed to always host up to three people for low-Earth orbit (LEO) travel. Its maximum time in space is the limiting factor for these rotations, and about 183 days.

Like Soyuz, it consists of three modules. The orbital module can be converted into a habitation space during the time in space and often hosts several payloads and scientific instruments during the missions. The reentry module, placed in the middle of the two other modules, features a heatshield and other parts needed for reentry and is the only party of the Shenzhou spacecraft that will reach the Earth’s surface again. At the very end, there is the service module, which, similar to other spacecraft, hosts the life support, propulsion, and power supply.

The Tiangong Space Station will be the destination for the spacecraft. The “palace in the sky” is designed to operate for up to 15 years and is floating in low-Earth orbit at an inclination of 41.58 degrees and an altitude of 389 kilometers.

Chang Zheng 2F

The rocket for this mission was the crew-certified Chang Zheng 2F, the main backbone of the Chinese crewed space program. So far, it has a 100% success rate and is mainly used to launch the Shenzhou spacecraft to LEO.

Chang Zheng 2F inside its service structure. (Credit: CASC)

A planet satellite captured the rocket on the pad about a week ago after it rolled out to the pad in preparation for the mission.

The rocket stands 62 meters tall with a liftoff mass of 464,000 kilograms. It can lift 8,400 kilograms into LEO. 

The four liquid-fueled boosters and the center core provide about 6,512 kN of thrust at liftoff as the YF-20B engines ignite. This will be the case for roughly 155 seconds before the boosters decouple, followed by the center core shortly after. 

After this, the second stage of CZ-2F will burn for about 460 seconds before releasing the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft for the final stage of the flight to Tiangong.

Shortly after docking, the handover between crews will begin, as the Shenzhou-17 crew will take over the station’s operation. The crew of Shenzhou-16 will then depart Tiangong and return to Earth in just days from now.

(Lead image: Shenzhou-17 spacecraft atop CZ-2F. Credit: CASC)

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