China Successfully Launched "Shenzhou 11": Its Longest Manned Spacecraft Mission
China continues to develop its ability to explore space as its Shenzhou 11 "heavenly vessel" launched 7:30pm ET (2330 GMT) on Sunday, October 16th from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. This is China's longest-ever manned spacecraft mission.
On board are two astronauts -- Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong. They will dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab, which was launched last month. Tiangong-2 is the China's new 10-meter-long, 3-meter-wide prototype space station. After docking, the astronauts are expected to remain aboard for about 30 days, the longest stay in space by Chinese astronauts. They will carry out various science experiments and technology demonstrations.
Chen Dong told a press conference that their tests will "focus on improving our ability to handle emergencies in orbit, medical first aid, mutual rescue capabilities and space experiments." They also brought three experiments that were designed by the middle school students from Hong Kong. One experiment will involve testing silkworms in micro-gravity.
What, exactly, are China's space goals?
China keeps on progressing with its ambitious space plans. It is the third country - after Russia and the US - to carry out its own manned missions.
China has made steady human spaceflight since the launching of its first astronaut in 2003 (country's first small space station). Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and by 2012 was visited by the crew of astronauts.
Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 are a precursor to China's ultimate goal of putting a permanent 20-ton space station into orbit 2022, two-years before the International Space Station will be retired.
Authorities said last month that its Tiangong-1 was due to fall back to Earth in 2017.
China's Future Space Plans
Next year, China plans to return a sample from the far side of the moon, which would be a first for any nation. In 2018 or 2019, a lander and rover might also be sent to the far side, which would be another first, and require the country to deploy a communications relay satellite. As for sending humans anywhere else, China's plans are vague, but reports have begun coalescing around a possible 2030 Landing to Moon.
In 2020, China is hoping to send a probe and rover to the Red Planet, which coincides with NASA's plan to send a successor to the Curiosity rover there. That rover is dubbed as Mars 2020, will collect and cache samples for a future return mission.
China's mission would use a heavy lift rocket named the Long March 9 that would be capable of lifting around 130 metric tons to low-Earth orbit, which would put it on par with the enhanced version of NASA's Space Launch System.