Shenzhou-11 to conduct more complicated experiments in space
Two Chinese astronauts are expected to stay in space for a record-breaking 33 days, a sign of the fast advance in China's space technology, experts said.
The Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft is expected to blast off atop a Long March-2F rocket at 7:30 a.m. Monday, taking two male astronauts, 50-year-old Jing Haipeng and 38-year-old Chen Dong, into space, said Wu Ping, deputy director of China's manned space engineering office, during a press conference at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Sunday on the edge of northern China's Gobi Desert.
Wu said the astronauts will stay in space for 33 days, a record for a Chinese crew. This includes 30 days in China's space lab Tiangong-2, two days orbiting it prior to rendezvous, and one day to separate before the return to Earth.
The crew will work eight hours a day, six days a week while in space.
The mission is the third spaceflight for Commander Jing, who will spend his birthday in space, and the first for Chen, who said that he is looking forward to experiencing things that are impossible on Earth, including weightlessness.
"First of all, I'm a pilot, but my role will also see me being an engineer, a scientist, a cleaner and a farmer," Chen said, talking about the experiments he expects to do.
Wu said some of the mission objectives include transporting personnel and materials between Earth and space lab Tiangong-2, conducting aerospace medical experiments and space science experiments. The two astronauts will undertake ultrasound tests during space travel for the first time, cultivate plants in space, and test the three winners of an experiment design competition run in Hong Kong for secondary school students, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
Although the main functions and technical parameters remain basically the same as the Shenzhou-10 mission, there have been slight adjustments to the docking and return orbit, Wu said, adding that communications technology has been improved, which will aid ground control support during maneuvers.
While the 33-day mission is a first for China, it greatly lags behind the world record of 340 days in the International Space Station set by US astronaut Scott Kelly.
But analysts said this mission shows China's confidence in its space program and that it is quickly catching up in technology.
"Shenzhou-11 will conduct more aerospace experiments, more complicated than those carried out on previous missions, which will be the biggest challenge," Jiao Weixin, a space science professor at Peking University, told the Global Times on Sunday.
Jiao said that staying in a confined space for too long will jeopardize the astronauts' health, so further improvements should be made to give the astronauts a more livable environment.
China launched space lab Tiangong-2 into space on September 15, paving the way for a permanent space station the country plans to build around 2022.
In 1992, China made a three-step strategy for its manned space program, with a large-scale manned space station being the ultimate goal.
"Shenzhou-11 marks the imminent end to the exploratory stage of China's space program, Jiao said.
After China's space station is put in orbit, the country can carry out manned space missions regularly, hopefully several times a year, instead of once every few years, said Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the People's Liberation Army, adding that it will shorten the distance between China and other strong space powers, such as the US and Russia.
On October 15, 2003, the Shenzhou-5 mission successfully carried Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, into space. Since then, China has launched 12 astronauts into space, established the Beidou satellite navigation and positioning system, and launched the Long March series of carrier rockets 236 times with a success rate of 97.5 percent, Xinhua reported.
China insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, but the US Defense Department has warned of its increasing capabilities, claiming it is pursuing activities aimed at preventing adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis, Reuters reported.
China's future aerospace experiments are mainly for civilian purposes, a Beijing-based expert on spaceflight, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times.
He said that China's aerospace industry is quickly improving at a relatively low cost with reliable technologies, and China has committed to the peaceful use of space and welcomes cooperation from other countries.