Shenzhou-17 astronauts performed the first spacewalk to repair the solar array

HELSINKI Chinas Shenzhou-17 astronauts began their first extravehicular activity Thursday to address minor damage to a solar array on the Tiangong space station.

Mission commander Tang Hongbo and Tang Shengjie began the nearly 7.5-hour extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalk, Thursday. The pair returned to Tiangong via the Wentian science modules EVA hatch at 8:35 am Eastern (1335 UTC) December 21, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO).

The Shenzhou-17 spacewalk tasks included an attempt to repair one of the Tianhe core modules solar arrays. The system was previously found to have suffered minor damage from micrometeoroid hits.

The successful experimental repair work could be seen as a big step for China as it aims to keep its Tiangong space station operational and permanently occupied for at least a decade.

Crewmate Jiang Xinlin assisted with operations from inside Tiangong by using the space station’s robotic arm. Tang Shengjie, 34, became the youngest Chinese astronaut to board an EVA to date.

Tang Hongbo completed his first spacewalk back in July 2021 during the Shenzhou-12 mission and was the first to visit the Tianhe core module.

“This extravehicular activity is very important, and very challenging. This is in-orbit maintenance in its true sense, Tang Hongbo said after the spacewalk, according to CCTV.

At that moment, I was there, I deeply felt the vastness of the starry sky and the deep meaning of limitless space exploration,” said Tang Hongbo.

A highlight video released by CMSEO shows astronauts conducting a closeup examination of the solar array, aided by the station’s robotic arms.

EVA presents new challenges for astronauts, according to Dong Nengli, deputy chief designer of China’s human spaceflight program.

For previous extravehicular activities, the astronauts’ major tasks were installation and inspection. This round of extravehicular activities on Thursday we call experimental servicing, Dong told CCTV.

“At this time the astronauts operate on one of the solar wings. It is flexible, to a certain extent, and also very thin, which limits the space of operation to a certain level, said Dong.

Dong added that the successful EVA means that the teams have mastered the ability of some extravehicular repairs. The success is such, laying a solid foundation for us to guarantee the safety and reliability of the space station in the future.

The work requires close coordination with the ground. “The repair work requires a high level of precision, so it requires high operational precision and skill of the astronauts in their use of tools, Wang Yanlei, director of the selection and training department of astronaut at the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, said CCTV.

They also need to confirm the coordination between the ground and space, and check the accuracy of the position. Wang added.

Tiangong’s evolving plans

China completed construction of Tiangong in October 2022 and is further developing its plans for its use.

CMSEO plans to launch an additional module that will allow expansion of the orbital outpost. Yang Liwei, the country’s first astronaut to fly into space, said the process of selecting the first international astronauts to visit Tiangong is ongoing.

A report from the Air Forces China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) earlier this year noted that how CMSEO operates in Tiangong, such as its open participation of civilian astronauts and nonstate-owned enterprise (SOE) company, is likely to change the global image of the Chinese space. program. CMSEO operates under Chinas Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).

Gui Haichao became China’s first civilian in space during the five-month Shenzhou-16 mission earlier this year.

Commercial launch companies may also play a role in a new low-cost cargo system to provide Tiangong. Tomas Hrozensky, a senior research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told SpaceNews earlier this year that the CMSEO cargo program is a clear indication that China intends to replicate the approach that provided a major achievement for NASA.

Also on December 21, components for a Long March 7 rocket arrived ashore at the Wenchang spaceport. The rocket will launch the Tianzhou-7 cargo mission to Tiangong in mid-January.

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