China to launch Shenzhou 14 mission to support module installation


China plans to launch the Shenzhou 14 mission to their Tiangong space station on Sunday morning, June 5, at 02:44 UTC, which is 10:44 pm EDT on Saturday the 4th.

The crewed launch of three taikonauts will take place from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China, with the Shenzhou spacecraft being taken to orbit by a Chang Zheng 2F (CZ-2F) rocket from a pad known as Space Launch Site 1.

The Crew

The Commander of the mission is Chen Dong, a veteran of the Shenzhou 11 mission in October 2016. Born December 12, 1978, Dong has a master’s degree in engineering from Xi’an Jiaotong University and is a fighter pilot in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force with the rank of Colonel.

He was selected as a China National Space Administration (CNSA) taikonaut in 2009. He was awarded the Spaceflight Merit Medal (Third Class) for his service on the Shenzhou 11 mission.

He is married and has two children.

Joining Dong on Shenzhou 14 is Liu Yang, who will serve in the Operator role.

Yang was born on October 6, 1978, and became China’s first woman taikonaut when she launched on the Shenzhou 9 mission on June 16, 2012. 

She is a graduate of the PLA’s Air Force Aviation University in Changchun, Jilin Province, China. Since then, she has earned the rank of Colonel and is a military transport pilot.

She was part of the same second group of taikonauts as Chen Dong.

Reports inside China indicate she gave birth to her first child in early 2015.

Liu Yang. (Credit: CNSA)

The third and final crewmember for this flight is Cai Xuzhe, making his first space flight. Xuzhe will serve as the System Operator for the mission.

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He is also a member of the PLA Air Force.

The Spacecraft

For this mission, the crew will fly on the Shenzhou, the backbone of China’s human spaceflight program

Shenzhou is a Soyuz-inspired capsule that first launched in 1999 and has since performed as designed.

The spacecraft has a launch mass of 7,840 kg, a length of 9.25 meters, and a width of 2.8 meters. It has an internal volume of 14 m3. Its first crewed launch was performed on the Shenzhou 5 mission in October 2003.

Chen Dong (right) and his Shenzhou 11 crewmate Jing Haipeng (left) at a pre-launch press event. (Credit: Xinhua / Li Gang)

Shenzhou, like Soyuz, has three separate modules: orbital, reentry, and service. The orbital module is used primarily for habitation and crew service when in free flight. It also carries scientific instruments and payload for the station.

The reentry module is the middle component. It has a heat shield and is the only part of the vehicle that will return with the crew back to Earth at the end of the mission, currently planned for December 2022.

The final part of the craft is its service module, which features solar panels, life support, and propulsion for steering during the free-flight phase of the mission to and from the station.

The Tiangong space station

Overall, Shenzhou 14’s main purpose is to bring up a new three-person crew to the Tiangong space station that currently consists of only its first module, the Tianhe core module.

The Shenzhou 14 crew, unlike the prior two crews to Tiangong, will assist with the installation and integration of the Wentian and Mengtian laboratory modules.

Rendering of a completed Chinese Space Station. (Credit: UNOOSA/CMSA)

Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”) will be the first laboratory module of Tiangong. Its launch is planned for July 23, 2022, on board a Chang Zheng 5B rocket

Wentian will not only provide space to conduct science experiments but will also provide the station with additional propulsion and solar power to increase its operational capabilities.

The second laboratory module, Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”), is planned to follow later this year — no earlier than October. It, too, will be launched by the Chang Zheng 5B.

Mengtian’s addition will increase the size and capabilities of the station to their currently planned maximum and will largely mark the end of the assembly of the Tiangong space station.

Fully built, Tiangong will be roughly 100 tons. This is one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station and about the same size as the former Soviet/Russian space station, Mir.

The payload fairings separate from the Chang Zheng 2F rocket’s second stage, exposing a Shenzhou capsule inside. (Credit: Mark Crawford for NSF/L2)

Shenzhou 14 will also be the start of permanent habitation on the Tiangong space station. The plan, once the science modules are added, is to only perform direct hand-overs between crews.

The Tiangong (modular) space station is the successor of the Tiangong-2 station and is expected to be operational for 10 to 15 years.

There are currently over 1,000 experiments pre-selected for the station, including missions in fluid physics, material science, and life science.

The station orbits at around 389 km in altitude with an inclination of 41.58 degrees and an orbital velocity of 7.68 km/s. It takes 92.2 minutes to complete a single orbit.

The Rocket

The rocket tasked with launching the Shenzhou 14 crew is the Chang Zheng 2F. This is a two-stage launch vehicle that is mainly used for China’s crew flights. It is part of the early generation of Chang Zheng vehicles that still use the hypergolic fuel and oxidizer combination instead of RP-1 and liquid oxygen like the more modern rockets.

Shenzhou 12 lifts off on a Chang Zheng 2F rocket in June 2021. (Credit: CASC)

So far, the Chang Zheng 2F has launched 16 times with a 100% success rate.

Standing 62 meters tall and with a liftoff weight of 464,000 kg, the Chang Zheng 2F can lift 8,400 kg into low Earth orbit.

The four YF-20B engines on the CZ-2F’s first stage provide 3,256 kN of thrust at liftoff with a specific impulse of 259 seconds at sea level. Attached to the first stage are four liquid boosters, each featuring the same type of engine. The boosters together contribute an additional 3,256 kN of thrust for a total liftoff thrust of 6,512 kN.

Each booster is 15.3 meters in length with a diameter of 2.3 meters. After liftoff, they will be the first to separate from the rocket, leaving the first stage core to do the rest of the atmospheric flight.

The first stage makes up most of the rocket, with a mass of 196,500 kg and a length of 23.7 meters. It will separate from the second stage after its burn and fall back to Earth.

The Shenzhou 14 mission patch.

After that, the second stage kicks in.

This stage is 13.5 meters in length with a diameter of 3.4 meters, the same as the first stage, and features a single YF-24B engine that provides a thrust of 831 kN. The specific impulse of the engine is 289 seconds. This second stage will bring the orbit of the spacecraft into the rendezvous window to the Tiangong space station before separating and leaving the Shenzhou capsule to free flight.

(Lead image: The Chang Zheng 2F for the Shenzhou 14 mission rolls out to the launch pad.)

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