Shenzhou-18 crew launches to Tiangong Space Station

by Adrian Beil

China launched the crewed Shenzhou-18 mission on April 24 at 12:58:57 UTC. The launch was conducted as usual, with a Chang Zheng 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou spacecraft on top.

The mission transported three new crew members to the Tiangong Space Station. The new astronaut trio will replace the Shenzhou-17 crew, which launched to Tiangong in October 2023. The time between launch and docking was confirmed to be roughly 6.5 hours.

The Crew

The crew consists of three members, of whom two are flying to space for the first time. Ye Guangfu, the mission commander, has already flown on Shenzhou-13, making this his second mission. Both Li Cong and Li Guangsu are members of the third Chinese astronaut class and are performing their first mission.

Ye Guangfu

Ye Guangfu (Credit: CASC)

The commander of this mission, Ye Guangfu, has already accumulated 182 days, 9 hours, and 32 minutes of spaceflight experience. He was a member of the Chinese Group 2 astronauts and flew on the Shenzhou 13 mission after being part of the backup crew for Shenzhou 12. He is 43 years old.

Shenzhou 13 was the second spaceflight to the Tiangong Space Station, which at that time only consisted of the Tianhe core module. It was the first mission with a planned duration of 180 days, which then became the standard mission duration after Shenzhou-13.

During Shenzhou-13, Ye Guangfu conducted a spacewalk with Zhai Zhigang to install a panoramic camera called camera C, install several foot restraint platforms, and perform various maneuvers outside the station. The spacewalk lasted 6 hours and 11 minutes.

During Shenzhou-13, Ye’s role was system operator. For Shenzhou-18, he has been assigned the role of commander. In addition to his spaceflight activities, Ye also participated in ESA’s CAVES program (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behavior and performance Skills). This program involved astronaut training in a space-analog cave environment, and he was part of the class of 2016.

Li Cong

Li Cong. (Credit: CASC)

Li Cong serves as the operator for the Shenzhou-18 crew. He is 34 years old and was born in the Fengfeng Mining District in Hanan in October 1989. While in school, he attended the Chinese Air Force Aviation University and later graduated from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Aviation University.

After completing his education, he enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army in September 2009. During his service, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel in a flying brigade within the Air Force Aviation Brigade.

In September 2020, he was selected as a fourth-grade astronaut for the People’s Liberation Army Astronaut Corps.

Li Guangsu

Li Guangsu. (Credit: CASC)

Li Guangsu, aged 36, will join the mission as the system operator for his first spaceflight. He was born in Huzhai, Pei County, Jiangsu, in July 1987. In 2005, he applied for recruitment to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Aviation University and later graduated.

Similar to Li Cong, he also joined the People’s Liberation Army and served as a Lieutenant Colonel in a flying brigade. In May 2018, he participated in the selection process for the next Astronaut Corps and was selected, along with Li Cong, as part of the third group, as a fourth-grade astronaut of the People’s Liberation Army Astronaut Corps in September 2020.

The mission

After docking, the crew begins the handover period with the Shenzhou-17 crew consisting of Tang Hongbo, Tang Shengjie, and Jiang Xinlin. The current plan is for the outgoing crew’s spacecraft to undock on April 30.

Once they are accustomed to living on the station, according to China, “The crew will perform various in-orbit science and application tests, experiments, as well as multiple spacewalks during their six-month stay in the country’s space station.”

The interiour of the Tiangong Space Station, featuring astronaut Wang Yaping. (Credit:CASC)

As is customary with China’s space operations, the exact details of the spacewalks have not yet been disclosed. However, part of the tasks will include installing the MMOD (Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris) shields on the station’s exterior. A new aquarium is also part of the Shenzhou-18 science itinerary.

The Shenzhou Spacecraft

The Shenzhou spacecraft. (Credit: China News Service)

Shenzhou (“The divine vessel” in English) is the spacecraft for the Shenzhou-18 mission. It will carry the three astronauts to the Tiangong station after decoupling from the Chang Zheng 2F rocket. After the mission, it will also be the return-to-Earth vessel for the crew.

The Shenzhou spacecraft is heavily inspired by the Russian Soyuz capsule and has been flying since 1999.

It has a mass of roughly 7,840 kilograms, depending on the exact mission specifications and loaded payloads. It is 9.25 meters long and 2.8 meters in diameter, featuring an internal volume of 14 cubic meters.

It is equipped for up to three astronauts for operations in low-Earth orbit. Here, it is designed to stay for roughly 180 days, give or take a few days for return, should the reentry weather not cooperate.

Shenzhou consists of three main modules. At the very bottom is the service module, which features the spacecraft’s life support, propulsion, and power supply. Above that is the reentry module, which features a heat shield to endure the reentry back to Earth, and can also feature payloads and other parts needed for the mission.

The upper module is the orbital module. It is the main habitation space during the flight up to the station, featuring many of the experiments and science of the capsule, and can be converted to a long-term habitation module once the station is reached.

Tiangong Station operates at an altitude of 389 kilometers and an inclination of 41.58 degrees.

Chang Zheng 2F

As always with Chinese crewed spaceflight, the rocket for this mission was the Chang Zheng 2F. It has a 100% successful flight rate and is the main vehicle to carry astronauts to Tiangong.

The tall rocket stands 62 meters high with a liftoff mass of 464,000 kilograms. It can carry up to 8,400 kilograms to low-Earth orbit. The rocket is optimized to carry the mass of the Shenzhou vehicle.

Chang Zheng 2F consists of a center stage and four liquid-fueled boosters. Together, they provide 6,512 kN of thrust at liftoff. On top of the rocket sits the CZ-2F second stage, which will burn for 460 seconds to insert the Shenzhou-18 spacecraft into the needed orbit to reach Tiangong.

(Lead image: Liftoff of Shenzhou-18. Credit: CASC)

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