A three-person crew recently began duties at China’s Tiangong space station, taking over from the current crew who have been there for six months and have since returned to Earth. The Shenzhou 14 crew landed in the Dongfeng area in the Gobi Desert on Saturday, December 4, leaving behind the Shenzhou 15 crew who will now operate the station.
This was the first time that six astronauts had been present on the new space station, as the Wenchang module, installed this summer, was required to provide extra crew quarters for the larger crew. Along with the recently added Mengtian module, the station now has all of the main hardware in place.
China’s state news agency, Xinhua, said that the station will now be home to a variety of scientific work, with more than 40 science and technology experiments to be conducted by the Shenzhou 15 crew.
While China’s space agency has traditionally had very little cooperation with other space agencies like NASA or the European Space Agency, there could be some degree of cooperative work done on the new station. “A number of space science projects China jointly selected with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and European Space Agency are planned, and the relevant payloads will begin to be sent to the Chinese space station next year,” Xinhua writes. “Requests have also been received from several countries to send astronauts to participate in the space station experiments, and China is coordinating with the relevant parties and actively preparing for the training of foreign astronauts.”
There has also been international controversy regarding the Chinese station, however, as boosters from the Long March 5B rockets used to deliver crew and parts to the station have fallen to Earth in uncontrolled descents. This happened in both July and November this year, with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson condemning the practice of letting boosters perform uncontrolled re-entries as dangerous, with the potential to cause damage or loss of life. Chinese officials have denied the danger, saying that the probability of causing damage is low, but many experts still consider the practice irresponsible.