They left. The three Chinese astronauts took off Thursday for the first manned flight to the “Heavenly Palace” that Beijing is assembling facing the International Space Station.
At the scheduled time, the Longue-Marche 2F rocket left its launch pad at the Jiuquan Space Launch Center at 09:22 (01:22 GMT), in the Gobi Desert (northwest), before settling into orbit. ten minutes later.
This is the first manned flight for China in nearly five years and a record time in space in perspective for the Asian giant: the three astronauts, whose names were not revealed until Wednesday, must stay three months in orbit.
In a context of tension with the West, the success of the mission is a matter of prestige for Beijing, which is preparing to celebrate on July 1 the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft launched Thursday must dock with the only module of the station already in space. The docking could take place six hours after the shooting, according to national television CCTV.
CCTV broadcast footage of the smiling astronauts lifting their visors after entering orbit, as a pencil floated in zero gravity.
“The solar panels have deployed normally and we can say that this launch is successful,” said launch center director Zhang Zhifen.
Control center and home for astronauts, the Tianhe module was placed at the end of April in low earth orbit (at an altitude of 350-390 km).
On board, the astronauts will not be idle: maintenance, installation of equipment, spacewalks, preparation of upcoming construction missions and stays of future crews.
– Patriotic dimension –
Called Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), the Chinese space station, when completed, will be similar in size to the former Soviet Mir station (1986-2001). Its lifespan will be at least ten years.
The Shenzhou-12 mission is the third launch of the 11 that will be required for the construction of the station between 2021 and 2022. Four manned missions are planned in total.
In addition to Tianhe already in place, the two remaining modules (which will be laboratories) should be sent into space in 2022. These will allow experiments in biotechnology, medicine, astronomy or even space technologies to be carried out.
China resolved to build its own space station after the United States refused to let it participate in the International Space Station (ISS).
The latter – which brings together the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan – is due to retire in 2024, even if NASA has mentioned a possible extension beyond 2028.
“We are ready to cooperate with any country that is committed to the peaceful use of outer space,” a senior official of the China Human Manned Flight Agency (CMSA) Ji Qiming said on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet and his American teammate Shane Kimbrough carried out a more than seven-hour spacewalk without a hitch to deploy a next-generation solar panel outside the ISS.
– Farewell ceremony –
Just before departure, the mission commander Nie Haisheng, accompanied by Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, said goodbye to their relatives and colleagues in a ceremony with a strong patriotic content during which resounded an old revolutionary refrain. : “No new China without the Communist Party”.
The trio underwent more than 6,000 hours of training, including tumbles in the pool in spacesuits, in order to get used to weightless rides.
“We fought every minute to fulfill our space dream,” said Liu Boming. “I trained as a dedication to the cause.”
In their capsule, the three soldiers will have the choice between 120 foods at mealtime and will be able to train on a treadmill to keep in shape.