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Chinese astronauts start testing new space station module (video)

China's Shenzhou 14 mission astronauts are getting the country's new space station module ready to host crews over the next decade.

Wentian launched on July 24 and docked with the Tianhe core module hours later, expanding China's Tiangong space station to two modules. 

SInce then, the Shenzhou 14 crew — Chen Dong, Cai Xuzhe and Liu Yang — have been busy getting Wentian into working order, testing out the module's 19.6-foot-long (6 meters) robotic arm and installing a regenerative life support system.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

Shenzhou 14 astronauts work inside the Wentian space station module, which launched to Earth orbit on July 24, 2022.

Shenzhou 14 astronauts work inside the Wentian space station module, which launched to Earth orbit on July 24, 2022. (Image credit: CCTV+)

Astronaut Cai has enjoyed more personal space recently by testing out Wentian's new sleeping quarters, while his crewmates sleep back in Tianhe. 

The added crew facilities in Wentian allow the orbiting complex to temporarily accommodate six astronauts, meaning that the Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 crews will be able to conduct China's first crew handover later this year.

The robotic arm, a smaller but more dextrous version of the 33.5-foot-long (10.2 m) arm launched with Tianhe, will be used for maintaining and repairing the exterior of the space station, but will also support spacewalks conducted by astronauts.

"Last week, the astronauts used the in-orbit training software and training platform to test the small mechanical arm," Wang Chunhui, deputy chief designer of the astronaut system of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, told Central China Television (CCTV).

"During the spacewalk, we can see that the third astronaut is manipulating the mechanical arm in the cabin to support the work of the other two outside," Wang added.

Next up, the Shenzhou 14 astronauts will be testing the complex regenerative life support system installed in early August. Wang stated that the system involves extensive plumbing operations, requiring a range of tests and adjustments and installation of instruments.

The crew are also expected to conduct a spacewalk using the Wentian hatch and host a livestreamed science lecture from the new module after testing is completed. Wentian also contains a range of science cabinets for carrying various experiments in low Earth orbit.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

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 (opens in new tab).