China's president made a call to the Tianhe space station module on Wednesday (June 23) to give his support to the Shenzhou 12 astronauts for their landmark mission.
President Xi Jinping made the call from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center to congratulate the three astronauts on a mission he described as a "milestone" for China's space efforts led by the China National Space Administration.
Shenzhou 12 is the first crewed mission to Tianhe, the 22.5-ton core module of China's planned space station, which launched into low Earth orbit on April 28.
Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo arrived at Tianhe on June 17, 6.5 hours after launch.
"You are the first batch of astronauts stationed in the core module Tianhe, and will carry out space missions for three months. All the Chinese people care about your life and work in space all the time," Xi said during the Earth-space video call.
Xi asked about their work, health and living conditions, commander Nie Haisheng said the work was proceeding as planned. Nie, currently in his third trip to space, praised the conditions for work and life on board Tianhe, stating that “we Chinese astronauts now have a long-term in-orbit home in space.”
Liu responded that the crew will conduct two extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, and a series of technical tests including use of a large mechanical arm designed to assist construction of the space station.
Tang, on his first space mission, stated that he had adapted to the microgravity environment and could make video calls with his family.
Xi, who is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the head of the People's Liberation Army, said China's space station “will make pioneering contributions to the peaceful use of outer space by humankind.”
Shenzhou 12 is expected to be China's longest crewed space mission so far and is the first such Shenzhou 11 in 2016.
Shenzhou 13 is being readied for launch at short notice to Tianhe in the case of an emergency. The three-module Chinese space station is planned to be completed in 2022.
While short, the call demonstrates the strength of political support for China’s space activities, as well as the high levels of national pride in the country’s achievements in space.
Xi has made similar calls to space before. In June 2013 he told the crew of Shenzhou 10 aboard the Tiangong 1 space lab that “the space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger. With the development of space programs, the Chinese people will take bigger strides to explore further into space." Xi earlier this year also met representatives from the Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission.
The call was made possible by China’s network of Tianlian relay satellites in geostationary orbit, 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) above the Earth’s equator. These communications satellites are vital to maintaining constant contact with the Earth.
With extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, planned to take place, the Tianlian system will allow group chats between astronauts outside in space, inside the station, and teams back on Earth.
NASA has its Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) network to carry out a similar role, including facilitating communications with the International Space Station.
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Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.