China Just Launched a Second Crewed Mission to Its New Space Station

The crew of three will catch up to the station as it passes overhead.
Brad Bergan
China's Long March vehicle rocketing to space.CCTV Video News Agency / YouTube

China is expanding its presence in space.

And it just launched a second crewed mission to its new space station atop a Long March 2F rocket, according to a live webcast of the event on China's state-sponsored CCTV Video News Agency (featured below).

The rocket launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, stationed in the Gobi Desert, on Friday, at roughly 12:23 PM EDT.

China's space station is getting an extra arm

Called the Shenzhou 13, the mission lifted off right as China's orbital space station, called Tianhe, passed overhead. The spacecraft will close this distance in the following 8 hours. The six-month-long mission will see three crew members; Commander Zhai Zhigang, and Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping, carry on the long haul of maturing the nation's first space station. The three taikonauts were the backup crew to the recent successful launch of the Shenzhou 12. Zhai was the first citizen of China to execute a spacewalk during the 2008 Shenzhou 7 mission, but now he's in command. Ye is flying to space for the first time, and Wang just became the first female taikonaut to visit China's Tianhe station. She was also part of the 2013 Shenzhou 10 mission.

During the mission, the crew will test crucial technologies slated to assemble and further develop the space station, which is slated for two additional modules in 2022. The three taikonauts will also move a module from one docking port to another, using a robotic arm on the station, according to a report. Three spacewalks are also scheduled, aiming to install an adaptor that will help the station's arm build another, smaller one. Once in position, Shenzhou 13 will approach and dock with the port on Tianhe that faces the Earth. "Speaking on behalf of our crew and myself, I'm confident about, and capable of completing, the Shenzhou 13 mission. The confidence comes from the technological and physical preparations as well as the mastery of the spacecraft's equipment system," said Zhai during a Thursday press conference from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, according to the report. "Confidence comes when these preparations are in place. With confidence, the spaceflight is not that difficult."

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This comes amid stalled progress for NASA's Artemis program and SpaceX's Starship development, both of which were halted for the second time after Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin launched litigation against the agency in August, for deciding to offer Elon Musk's firm sole recipiency on a contract to build a Human Landing System (HLS), intended to return humans to the moon for the first time in 40 years. Days later, NASA released an audit that walked back its initial timeline for a lunar landing, which originally planned for a return by 2024.

"[D]elays related to lunar lander development and the recently decided lander contract award bid protests will also preclude a 2024 landing," read the agency's audit. Elon Musk immediately replied to NASA's release on Twitter, offering to have SpaceX help NASA speed up development on the forthcoming moonwalk-ready spacesuits. Of course, China has far to go before it could hypothetically overtake NASA and its private partners, but with a deepening partnership with Russia amid plans to build a collaborative lunar space station, there's little time to waste. Although, the best-case scenario is one in which the settlement of the moon moves forward under a purely cooperative spirit between the space-faring nations of the world.