HELSINKI — A pair of Chinese astronauts conducted their second extravehicular activity in recent days, with China for the first time providing no advance indication nor details of the event.
China’s human spaceflight agency CMSA announced March 2 that Shenzhou-15 mission astronauts Fei Junlong and Zhang Lu had “recently” carried out a spacewalk outside the Tiangong space station.
The activity was supported by crewmate Deng Qingming from within Tiangong and teams on the ground. No further details were provided, beyond Fei and Zhang using the Wentian science module airlock for egress and ingress.
Rumors on Chinese social media had suggested an EVA was taking place Feb. 28.
The secrecy surrounding the spacewalk is in contrast to previous Tiangong EVAs, for which CMSA has issued albeit vague notices that such activities would take place in the near future.
Space space authorities issued reports on timings of key EVA events and listed tasks for the first Shenzhou-15 spacewalk just three weeks ago, Feb. 9. Chinese state media have previously provided video footage of EVAs.
It is unclear why CMSA has not published details of the latest action. The agency is overseen by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and as such has traditionally closely guarded even basic information about its astronaut corps.
The lack of transparency may be seen by other space actors as troublesome.
“The Chinese authorities are not doing themselves any favors by not providing much transparency about their crewed spaceflight operations,” Bleddyn Bowen, an associate professor specializing in space policy and military uses of outer space at the University of Leicester, told SpaceNews.
“If they want to be seen as a more normal space power, everyday crewed spaceflight operations — which have little to no security and military importance — can be more openly reported and talked about.
“The Chinese authorities also need to get more used to talking honestly about delays and unforeseen challenges as some other space powers have done.”
Astrophysicist and spaceflight observer Jonathan McDowell concurred, noting that even the Soviets always gave start time and duration for their spacewalks. “There is no sensible reason for China to be so secretive,” McDowell said via email.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated at the International Astronautical Congress in September last year that a lack of transparency was an issue regarding China’s space activities.
China is undergoing a reshuffle of key government positions ahead of its annual parliamentary session, the National People’s Congress, which opens on Sunday. Sensitivity to upcoming changes could play a role in secrecy in this instance.
Information about China’s human spaceflight activities are however often closely guarded. Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut in space and a deputy chief designer at CMSA, recently told Chinese state media that two crews and backups had been chosen for the Shenzhou-16 and Shenzhou-17 missions due to launch in May and November respectively.
No names were provided, however, in contrast to more open and transparent practices around the world. China typically only reveals the identities of the crews a day ahead of launch at carefully staged press conferences.
Individuals recruited in a third astronaut selection round in 2020 have also yet to be revealed. The new astronauts may have now completed basic training and be available for selection for upcoming missions.
The new recruits for the first time include engineers and payload specialists, whereas earlier rounds were solely drawn from air force pilots. A fourth selection round got underway late last year.
China is also preparing to expand its Tiangong outpost and has begun a process to select the first international astronauts to visit the space station.
In broader terms, China does publish once-every-five-year white papers which outline civilian plans and priorities for the years ahead.
Meanwhile on Mars, China’s Zhurong rover was expected to resume activities in Utopia Planitia in December, following a period of hibernation during winter time in the northern hemisphere.
Space authorities have yet to provide an update on the status of the rover after its expected reactivation around spring equinox. Images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirm however that the rover has not moved in months and may have accumulated a covering of Martian dust, inhibiting Zhurong’s power and heat generation.