Upon completion of the docking, the incoming Shenzhou XVII crew undertook approximately two hours of preliminary tasks. These procedures included doffing their pressure suits and changing into intravehicular work attire, in addition to re-pressurizing the connecting cabin. These steps were executed to ensure a safe and seamless transition into the space station.
Once these prerequisites were met, the hatch of the Tianhe core module was opened at 19:34 local time by the current Shenzhou XVI crew, who have been in orbit for the past five months. The two crews met with hugs and proceeded to take a celebratory group selfie, earning applause from ground control.
The new Shenzhou XVII contingent consists of mission commander Senior Colonel Tang Hongbo, Lieutenant Colonel Tang Shengjie, and Lieutenant Colonel Jiang Xinlin. All three are members of the People's Liberation Army Astronaut Division. Their expedition commenced at 11:14 local time when their Long March 2F rocket ascended into clear skies from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in the Gobi Desert of northwestern China.
The incoming crew will collaborate with the current Shenzhou XVI team-Major General Jing Haipeng, Colonel Zhu Yangzhu, and Professor Gui Haichao-for an approximate four-day handover period. After this transition, the Shenzhou XVII team will assume control of the Tiangong space station, and the Shenzhou XVI crew will make their journey back to Earth.
According to Lin Xiqiang, the deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the Shenzhou XVII astronauts are slated for a six-month stay at Tiangong. Their responsibilities include a multitude of in-orbit space science applications, payload tests, and experiments. Among the scheduled tasks are extravehicular activities (EVAs), extravehicular payload installations, and station maintenance.
For the first time, the crew will also undertake extravehicular experimental maintenance, described by Lin as "a very challenging task." The need for this activity stems from the inevitable interaction between long-term operating spacecraft and increasing space debris. "Preliminary inspections have revealed minor damages caused by tiny space particles hitting the solar wings of the space station," Lin said. Nonetheless, he assured that all functionality and performance indicators of the station currently meet their design requirements.
The upcoming mission will focus on the long-term operational verification of the space station's technical capabilities. The crew will further evaluate the space station's functional performance while also stress-testing the coordination and compatibility of ground support centers in handling space station operations and management tasks.
In closing remarks, Lin confirmed that the Shenzhou XVI mission had progressed well, accomplishing a total of 70 space experiments across multiple fields including aerospace medicine, life ecology, biotechnology, and materials science. The outgoing crew also conducted an EVA, delivered a space lecture, and assisted in the detachment of the Tianzhou-5 cargo spacecraft from the Tiangong station.
The Shenzhou XVII mission will continue the momentum, striving for a smooth and successful six-month stay aboard the Tiangong space station.
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