China on Tuesday sent three new astronauts to its Tiangong space station, including for the first time a civilian, with the ambition to strengthen its knowledge of manned flight against the Americans and Russians.
A valuable experience for the Asian giant, which reaffirmed Monday want to send a Chinese to the moon by 2030, the great goal of a space program that has progressed steadily for several decades. The trio of the Shenzhou-16 mission took off aboard a Long March 2F rocket at 09:31 local time (01:31 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert (northwest), according to AFP journalists on the spot.
The launch was a "total success" and the "astronauts are in good shape," said Zou Lipeng, director of the launch center. Mission commander Jing Haipeng (56), on his fourth space flight, is accompanied by engineer Zhu Yangzhu (36) and Gui Haichao (36), a professor and China's first civilian in space. A specialist in space science and engineering, the latter will be in charge of experiments in the station. He did not come from the armed forces, as was systematically the case until now.
Their stay in Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") is to last six months. They will meet their three colleagues from the previous mission, Shenzhou-15, who have already been there for six months and who will return to Earth in a few days. "What is significant" in this mission is precisely "that there is nothing significant" because the Chinese manned program is now entering a longer time, said Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States.
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China now intends to "accumulate experience in human spaceflight", an "important" goal and which "does not involve new spectacular steps permanently", he told AFP. The astronauts are mainly involved in crew rotations, permanent occupation of Tiangong, maintenance and research, and a slow expansion of the station's capabilities, McDowell said.
China has some catching up to do in this area, as it only sent its first human into space in 2003 – long after the Soviets and Americans in 1961. Tiangong, whose construction is now complete, has for a few months its final T-shaped shape. Similar in size to the former Russian-Soviet Mir station, it is however much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS).
Also known as CSS (for "Chinese Space Station"), it must remain in Earth orbit for at least 10 years. Tiangong was supplied with drinking water, clothing, food and fuel in May, in preparation for Shenzhou-16. China has been partly pressured to build its own station due to the US refusal to allow it to participate in the ISS. A U.S. law virtually prohibits any collaboration between U.S. and Chinese space authorities.
The Asian giant, however, reiterated on Monday its willingness to conduct international cooperation around Tiangong, especially for the realization of experiments. "I am extremely excited and eager to see foreign astronauts participate in missions to China's space station," Lin Xiqiang, spokesman and deputy director of the CMSA, also said at a press conference. In the longer term, he also reaffirmed the country's desire "to achieve before 2030 the first landing of a Chinese on the Moon" in order to conduct "scientific observations".
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China has already invested billions of euros in its space program. In 2019, the country landed a craft on the far side of the Moon, a world first. In 2020, it brought back samples from the Moon and finalized Beidou, its satellite navigation system. In 2021, China landed a small robot on Mars. The Asian giant now plans to launch two manned space missions each year, the CMSA said Monday. The next one will be Shenzhou-17, which is expected to launch in October.