Three Chinese astronauts are set to go into orbit on the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft just past midnight on Saturday, replacing the Tiangong space station’s first crew who returned to Earth in September.
Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu will join a relatively select few. Although more than 500 people have been in Earth’s orbit since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to journey into outer space in 1961, the largest number of people in orbit at the same time has been only 14 – a record set with the launch of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission in September.
So who and what is in space right now? Here’s a quick rundown.
Who is in space at the moment?
As of Thursday, there were seven people in space – all aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Expedition 65, the 65th long-duration expedition to the ISS. The mission began on April 17 this year.
The Expedition 65 crew members currently in space are:
- Akihiko Hoshide (Jaxa, Japan) – commander
- Thomas Pesquet (ESA, France) – flight engineer
- Shane Kimbrough (Nasa, United States) – flight engineer
- Megan McArthur (Nasa, United States) – flight engineer
- Mark Vande Hei (Nasa, United States) – flight engineer
- Oleg Novitskiy (Roscosmos, Russia) – flight engineer
- Pyotr Dubrov (Roscosmos, Russia) – flight engineer
Besides the seven-strong Expedition 65 crew, the 14 people in orbit included three from the Shenzhou 12 mission, who have since returned, and four with the Inspiration4 mission, which stayed in orbit for almost three days and was the first orbital space flight with only private citizens aboard.
The previous record of 13 people in space was set in 2009.
What is the International Space Station?
A space station is a large satellite that can house a human crew for an extended period of time, serving as a habitat for astronauts in space.
Until the April 2021 launch of China’s Tiangong, the ISS was the only such spacecraft in orbit.
The ISS consists of 16 modules contributed by 15 countries. They are Canada, Japan, Russia, the US, and 11 member states of the European Space Agency (ESA): Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain. The first module, Zarya, was launched in 1998.
As of August 2021, the station had hosted 244 individuals, including both professional astronauts and space tourists.
The ISS also functions as a space laboratory because its microgravity environment – in which objects and people appear to be weightless – allows a variety of experiments to be carried out.
The station is to continue operating until 2024 under existing agreements, but its future is unclear. Russia has raised concerns about the station’s ageing components and said it would leave the programme in 2025, although the US has cleared the station for continued operation until 2028.
Why is China building its own space station?
China previously asked to join the ISS but it was rejected by the United States – so it began building its own.
The Tiangong space station, whose name means “heavenly palace”, is the country’s latest milestone in space exploration.
It is expected to be completed next year and have a mass of about 100 tonnes, about a quarter of the size of the ISS. Eleven missions are expected to be needed to finish it.
China launched the station’s core module Tianhe (or “heavenly harmony”) in April. Tianhe is one of its three modules, with the other two, Wentian and Mentian, expected to be sent into orbit next year. They will be used to carry out experiments in areas including space medicine and biotechnology.
The Tianhe module is about the size of a five-storey building and can accommodate up to six astronauts. Drinking water on board will be recycled from condensation collected inside the cabin, and urine.
Tianhe received its first three astronauts in June, from the Shenzhou 12 mission. They returned in September.
China had previously launched the space labs Tiangong 1 (in 2011) and Tiangong 2 (in 2016) to test technologies for the eventual space station.
What else is in space right now, and where?
In low-Earth orbit, there is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in space since the 1990s. It is a collaboration between Nasa and the ESA.
Further out in space, several countries have put craft on or around the moon. Currently, China has an active rover on the moon’s surface, while the US and India have lunar orbiters.
Several countries, too, have sent orbiters and rovers to Mars. China and the US have this year landed rovers on the red planet’s surface.
The spacecraft that have gone farthest into space are Nasa’s two Voyager probes, both of which have gone beyond the solar system to enter interstellar space.
Will I be able to visit space any time soon?
Commercial space travel has recently been in the spotlight after the successful launches of several missions operated by private companies, but the concept is not exactly new: space tourism company Space Adventures has sent seven people to the ISS since 2000.
In July, British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic vessel and Amazon pioneer Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin both completed their inaugural suborbital flights, each with its founder on board for the ride.
However, they were overtaken in September by SpaceX, which launched its first all-civilian crew into the Earth’s orbit.
The three-day Inspiration4 mission took the space tourists to an altitude of 585km (363 miles) above the Earth’s surface, the farthest any humans have flown since Nasa’s Apollo moon programme in the 1970s. The spacecraft was flown by a ground-based team and systems on board.
Its operator SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is one of the leading companies in commercial space travel. Having previously launched cargo and astronauts for Nasa, the space exploration firm will next year transport four private astronauts to the ISS for a mission run by another company, Axiom Space. It also has plans for the world’s first private lunar mission.
All of this means that commercial space travel promises to become more common. Hundreds have lined up for the chance to experience otherworldly views and a few minutes of weightlessness, but deep pockets are required, with estimates suggesting a trip lasting about an hour comes with a price tag of at least US$250,000.