Tianzhou-6’s Ultimate Mission: Satellite Launched; Crew of Shenzhou-18 Confirmed by Yang Liwei

Has anyone else felt a pang of loss? While China has pursued the development of the most powerful cargo spacecraft, it has also been expanding its value in a way that might surprise many. Before the Tianzhou-6 cargo spacecraft made a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere, it accomplished something significant for China, which resulted in the launch of a new satellite.

It’s undeniable that during the execution of space missions, China always aims to maximize the use of its spacecraft to the fullest extent.

Thus, the re-entry of the Tianzhou-6 and its turn into ashes can be seen as a grand finale to its mission. But before delving into the details of this particular satellite, let’s first examine what Tianzhou-6 achieved, then we can address the satellite’s purpose.

The Ultimate Mission of Tianzhou-6: Launching a Satellite

According to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the Tianzhou-6 cargo spacecraft successfully conducted a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere, with most of its components burning up upon reentry and only a small amount of debris falling into the predetermined safe waters.

While some may regret seeing such a powerful cargo spacecraft not being recovered, there was a reason behind China’s decision to let it burn up instead of retrieving it. It wasn’t due to any technological constraints, but simply because it wasn’t deemed necessary, as the engineering principles at play did not require it.

Launching just one cargo spacecraft per year is sufficient to supply two astronaut crews, a feat that not even the International Space Station can match. This efficiency alone nullifies the need for spacecraft recovery.

In retrospect, Tianzhou-6 did indeed contribute significantly to China’s space station, and I’ll summarize its achievements briefly:

Firstly, it delivered supplies for three astronauts to last 280 days, loaded with approximately 260 items, and transported a total of about 5.8 tons of materials, ensuring the supply requirements of two astronaut crews were met.

Secondly, it replenished propellant. Aside from transporting supplies for astronauts, another critical mission of Tianzhou-6 was to refuel the space station with 1.75 tons of propellant, with about 700 kilograms designated specifically for the station.

Thirdly, it maintained the space station’s operations. Tianzhou-6 supplied the station’s electric propulsion system with the necessary working substance, saving on propellant consumption as it also carried backup propellants for the space station.

Beyond these functions, it also carried important experimental payloads for conducting scientific experiments and validation. And just before re-entry, it fulfilled an ultimate mission: launching a new satellite, leading to a further breakthrough in cargo spacecraft applications.

So, as we can see, China greatly expanded the utilization value of its cargo spacecraft beyond what one might have expected just before its re-entry.

This is indeed a step up in terms of the scientific value for the country.

The Satellite Launched by Tianzhou-6: What is its Purpose?

Indeed, the satellite launched was part of Tianzhou-6’s ultimate mission. The satellite, named Dalian-1 — a project led by Dalian University of Technology, was more than just a payload; it also served as a validation of technology.

Before Tianzhou-6 re-entered the atmosphere, the spacecraft didn’t head straight for re-entry after detaching from the Chinese space station. Instead, it continued to orbit for several days and waited until after Tianzhou-7 had docked before re-entering the atmosphere. This interval was used to find the right moment to deploy the satellite.

In essence, the satellite was “released” in sync with Tianzhou-6, a process that was completed with remarkable success.

This satellite’s mission was part of China’s adaptability in space engineering, offering opportunities for public benefit payloads. Since the launch of Tianzhou-6, the satellite was synchronized with the spacecraft’s external environment for 253 days and had to endure external environmental effects like high-energy radiation, extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions, and atomic oxygen corrosion, challenges far different from storing on the ground.

To ensure reliable long-term storage in orbit and successful deployment, the satellite’s development team designed several high-reliability units specifically customized for the mission. These included a memory alloy unlocking device, advanced temperature control and sampling circuits, in-orbit power protection and charging circuits, as well as telemetry data collection systems, ultimately overcoming the challenges of extended storage in space.

The success of this satellite will further promote more of China’s satellites to be placed as external loads, providing important support for future missions.

The satellite was not merely launched as a technological validation but carried out essential tasks. Weighing approximately 17kg, Dalian-1’s main objectives included testing a real-time operating system based on OpenHarmony, deploying ultra-lightweight nano-satellites using metal 3D printing technology, sub-meter level terrestrial remote sensing imaging, advanced green non-toxic HAN propulsion systems, and top-performing satellite parts and components.

After the deployment, the satellite performed three-axis stabilization control and unfolded its solar panels, entering its normal operational mode. It began its on-orbit science research mission by transmitting target images and other data back to Earth as planned.

In conclusion, just before its final destiny, Tianzhou-6 once again made a significant contribution to the progression of China’s space endeavors.

The Next Mission: The Execution of Shenzhou-18

Yes, following the re-entry of Tianzhou-6 and the launch of Tianzhou-7, the next scheduled mission is the launch of the Shenzhou-18 manned spacecraft, with the launch date already set.

The timing of this event isn’t surprising, considering that the missions carry predictable patterns, often about six months apart.

It is anticipated that the Shenzhou-18 manned spacecraft will launch around April 2024. The astronaut crew has also been selected, as reported by Yang Liwei, the deputy chief designer of China’s manned space program. The crews for both Shenzhou-18 and Shenzhou-19, consisting of six astronauts, have been confirmed.

The names of the astronauts are still under wraps, currently in training and only to be announced a few hours before the mission is due to begin. Will there be a female astronaut among them?

There have been speculations about including a female astronaut in Shenzhou-18, but this remains simply a possibility. With Wang Yaping and Liu Yang engaging in science communication activities on the ground, if there were to be a female astronaut, she would likely be the only one from the third group of astronauts. However, the actual specifics will be revealed when the official announcement is made, so until then, everything remains conjecture.

In closing, no matter who carries out China’s space missions, they are all heroes in the spacecraft program, and we hope for the flawless completion of all their objectives.

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