False: ‘Falling dust,’ mobile phones and haircut do not prove Chinese astronauts are not in space

An expert said dust particles may appear in space due to ambient air activity. Mobile phones can also work as internet access in space is made possible through satellite communication.

A photo posted on Twitter on Sept. 20 is claimed to show the three Chinese astronauts – often called taikonauts – on board the Shenzhou 12 were not actually in space.

The post in Chinese implies that this was not actually taken in space; it reads, when translated to English, “Is the mobile phone in space for calling aliens? Standing still while dust is falling. The most marvellous thing is that they have someone cutting their hair. Must say Chinese astronauts are real.”

This image is a screenshot of a video that the same user uploaded in a succeeding tweet.

In the image, the taikonaut in the middle is holding a mobile phone. A red circle has been added to highlight the dust, which can be seen falling at the 23-second mark in the video.

However, this claim is false. Experts say mobile phones can be used in space and dust can look “falling” due to ambient air circulation.

Keyword search led to the original video aired by China Central Television (CCTV). It was the footage of the Shenzhou-12 crew in the Chinese space station before their journey back to the Earth, completing the mission that broke the record of space stay duration for taikonauts.

Another CCTV video on YouTube (below) explains in Chinese that mobile devices in space are for communicating with ground personnel, as well as for the taikonauts to communicate with their family in their spare time.

According to Professor Quentin A Parker, director of the Laboratory for Space Research at the University of Hong Kong, mobile phones are connected to an internal Wi-Fi network inside the space station.

A Global Times article says the network speed on board Shenzhou 12 is equivalent to the 5G network on the ground. Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po reported that the space station makes use of advanced technology in satellite communication, which makes internet access possible.

Parker said in an email that the “object” seen falling is probably a small particle of dust moving, possibly due to the ambient air circulation inside the module.

“The fact that it appears fast moving is just because it is so close to the lens,” he added.

Parker also noted the blue book floating and rotating freely in the background shows this video was taken in microgravity.

It is a known fact that dust can accumulate inside a spacecraft and that regular cleaning and vacuuming are required even in space.

In a BBC article, Christophe Lasseur, a researcher looking into life support systems at the European Space Agency, said air movement in space is greater and dust will accumulate in a spacecraft.

Another article by NASA also says that space, like any home, gets dusty with particles floating around. Filters are usually installed in space stations and astronauts have to vacuum regularly to keep their environment clean.

This video shows Tim Peake, an astronaut from the European Space Agency, performing a regular cleaning routine amid his six-month space mission in 2016.

As for their haircuts, one of the taikonauts, Nie Haisheng, said in a CCTV video that they have to attach a vacuum to the shaver in order to cut their hair in space. He usually gets his haircut from fellow taikonaut Hongbo Yang.