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China's first Shenzhou 13 spacewalk sees 2 astronauts test suits, robotic arm

China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts continued construction of the country's new space station over the weekend, carrying out tasks to assist the outpost's future function in orbit.

Shenzhou 13 mission commander Zhai Zhigang and colleague Wang Yaping exited the Tianhe core module on Sunday (Nov. 7) at 7:28 a.m. EST (1228 GMT, 8:28 p.m. Beijing Time), beginning a 6.5-hour extravehicular activity. The spacewalk is the first of two or three planned for the six-month-long Shenzhou 13 mission, and the third overall since the launch of China's first Tiangong space station module, Tianhe, in late April.

One of the main tasks during the excursion was installing a dual-arm connector to Tianhe's 32.8-foot-long (10 meters) robotic arm. The connector will allow the existing arm to join with a smaller, 16-foot (5 m) arm that will arrive in orbit along with the second space station module, Wentian, in mid-2022. 

Related: China's Shenzhou 12 astronauts send back stunning images of Earth

China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping wave to a camera during their mission's first spacewalk on Nov. 7, 2021 at the Tiangong space station core module Tianhe.  (Image credit: CMSE)

The combined arm will be able to handle more massive objectives and have a greater range, Gao Sheng, an engineer in charge of the mechanical arm operation with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told government-run press Xinhua.

Zhai became the first Chinese astronaut to embark on a spacewalk in 2008 during the Shenzhou 7 mission, with the EVA lasting 22 minutes. Wang became China's second woman in space aboard Shenzhou 10 in 2013. This week's spacewalk, more than eight years later, made her the country's first female spacewalker. 

Zhai and Wang used Feitian spacesuits that can each support eight hours of extravehicular activity in one go. Zhai's suit, marked with red, was used for the third time after having been delivered in May by the Tianzhou 2 cargo mission. 

Wang wore a suit with yellow markings that was delivered by Tianzhou 3 in September. This EVA suit, dubbed spacesuit-C, was optimized for a "smaller astronaut," Ding Lingyan, chief designer of the EVA spacesuit under the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, told state television station CCTV.

Other tasks included testing the performance of the new-generation EVA spacesuits, the coordination between the astronauts and the robotic arm, and the reliability and safety of supporting EVA equipment.

The pair were supported by colleague Ye Guangfu inside Tianhe and by the ground space control command, codenamed Shuguang. The name, meaning "dawn" is taken from China's aborted 1970s human spaceflight program which fell foul of the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. 

"We have to continuously conduct simulation exercises to find out if there are any problems that need to be addressed in the whole process, for the EVAs are relatively high risk," Wu Hao, assistant researcher of China Astronaut Research and Training Center, said in an interview with CCTV.

The astronauts of China's Shenzhou 13 mission to the Tiangong space station module Tianhe took their first spacewalk on Nov. 7, 2021. It was crewed by Shenzhou 13 commander Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping, China's first female spacewalker. (Image credit: CMSA)

Building out a station 

This EVA required were more complex preparations than the excursions of the Shenzhou 12 mission. This time, Tianhe was larger, with a cargo spacecraft docked at each end and the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at the nadir port, pointing down with respect to the Earth.

"The whole structure has changed a lot," Zhu Guangchen, deputy chief designer of the space station system at CAST, told CCTV. "Therefore, to prepare for the EVAs, we made special adjustments involving the flying attitude, solar arrays, and angle of the communications antenna. The Tianhe module's flying attitude was especially designed for this EVA."

The large robotic arm that Zhai and Wang worked on will be used to manipulate the yet-to-launch Wentian module from Tianhe's forward docking port to a lateral port where it will remain for more than a decade, according to China's space station plans. Tianzhou 2 is currently docked at the forward port and will be used as a test article for the arm to perform this maneuver before the arrival of Wentian. 

A third module named Mengtian will be added later in 2022, completing the "T" shaped Chinese Space Station. Wentian and Mengtian will mainly host experiments; Wentian will also provide another EVA hatch with a larger airlock for easier preparation for spacewalks.

Wang's spacewalk will likely be inspirational to many others. "Dreams are like stars in the universe, seemingly out of reach, while as long as you work hard, you will touch them in the end," Wang told CCTV ahead of the Shenzhou 13 mission.

However, she is only one of two women among the 13 Chinese astronauts to have flown to space so far; just one of 18 trainees selected to join the astronaut program in 2020 was a woman. 

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Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.