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China: Face-to-face meetings are best when swapping space station crews

Tiangong's population to double for a week after very, very, long commute, if rare very cold launch succeeds

China's Tiangong space station will host six taikonauts for the first time, after a fresh crew reaches the orbital habitat this week.

The Middle Kingdom's space agency yesterday named the three crew members selected to fly to the station later today: 56 year old Deng Qingming, who has been on the backup list for crewed missions since 1997, and 46 year old Zhang Lu, who was trained as a taikonaut after a 2010 intake.

57 year old Fei Junlong – a veteran of China's second ever crewed mission, 2005's Shenzhou-6 – will command the crew.

The mission will be the first time a crew aboard Tiangong hands over to a team of successors in person. For around a week both crews – half a dozen people – will be aboard the space station. As the station will host two capsules, it will reach its heaviest-ever weight of nearly 100 tons while both crews are present.

China's space agencies reckon the overlapping visits are a big deal because it creates a chance for face-to-face information exchange that is expected to be more efficient than remote chats. Having two crews aboard at the same time also means Tiangong won't need to be prepped for robotic ops, then restored to provide a human-friendly habitat.

The ascending crew has a six-month stint in space ahead of it, during which three or four spacewalks are planned to continue work on the station. The crew may also get the chance to load cargo from other space agencies – China has always said it hopes to foster international extra-terrestrial collaboration by hosting instruments from other nations aboard Tiangong. The space agency expects those payloads to start arriving during 2023.

Authorities also trumpeted the recent arrival of a lab module at Tiangong, plus the performance of advanced life support systems that have reduced the mass of consumables needed to sustain the crew – from 8,000kg a year to just 400kg. Recovering 95 percent of oxygen and water was cited as the main contributor to the reduction in required supplies.

China's space agencies have conducted eleven launches so far to hoist Tiangong's crew and components aloft, and report that that all went off without a hitch – including the three previous missions to carry crew to the space station.

However, today's launch is the first crewed mission to use the Long March-2F rocket in conditions set to reach -20° Celsius. China has successfully launched cargo rockets in those conditions, and believes it has nailed the cold weather tech needed to ensure this launch is conducted safely and successfully. ®

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