On Tuesday night in China, a rocket as tall as a 20-story building will carry three astronauts toward a rendezvous with the country’s just-completed space station.
The mission, which is called Shenzhou 15, will set a significant milestone for China’s crewed space program. Here’s what you need to know about the flight and why it is significant.
When is the launch and how can I watch it?
The mission will lift off at 11:08 p.m. local time on Tuesday, or 10:08 a.m. Eastern time in the United States. CGTN, China’s state television network, has announced that it will carry the launch live, although television broadcasts from China are often actually delayed by several seconds in case anything goes wrong. The launch should be visible here with commentary in English: https://www.cgtn.com/tv
The rocket launch will be a split-screen event for China, the latest in a long series of technological achievements for the country, even as many of its citizens have been angrily lashing out in the streets against stringent pandemic controls.
Who will be launching to space and why are they going?
Three men will be aboard Shenzhou 15: Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. China chose its oldest and most experienced team of astronauts to run the just-completed space station for the next six months. Mr. Fei, the spaceflight commander, first went into space in 2005 and is 57 years old.
“I am very proud and excited to be able to go to space again for my country,” he said.
The first piece of the Tiangong space station, the Tianhe core module, was launched last year. Two uncrewed pieces of the orbital base, Wentian and Mengtian, were launched in separate flights in July and October, each docking with Tianhe, and completing construction of the space station.
The Tianhe core module has had trios of astronauts aboard it for short stints since last year. But the launch on Tuesday represents the beginning of continuous occupancy of the space station, with overlapping stays by two crews of astronauts. The three Shenzhou 15 astronauts will fly up to the space station and spend a week with the astronauts already there from Shenzhou 14 in a coordinated exchange of roles similar to what happens on the International Space Station. The Shenzhou 14 astronauts will then fly back to China while the Shenzhou 15 astronauts will stay aboard Tiangong until next May, when they will be replaced by another team.
Although the initial astronauts are all from China, officials said on Monday that they would welcome astronauts from other countries.
Where is the rocket launching from?
China has four space rocket launch sites around the country. The only one for crewed expeditions is the one being used on Tuesday: the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in the country’s northwest
Jiuquan is 150 miles into the Gobi Desert from the nearest city, Jiayuguan in Gansu Province. Construction of the center began in 1958, when it was built for China’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Foreigners and even most Chinese citizens are not usually allowed anywhere near the site.
On Monday and Tuesday, journalists for two foreign news organizations were given uncommon access to the launch center. They were two journalists for The New York Times and a photographer from Kyodo News of Japan. Each visitor was required to spend a week first sealed in a quarantine room at a village hotel about 50 miles away and pass daily PCR tests. Foreign journalists paid for their travel, accommodation and quarantine.
The quarantine was part of elaborate precautions to prevent the Covid-19 virus from reaching the space center again. An outbreak last year briefly interrupted work at the site.
Li You contributed research from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.