China moves rocket to launch pad ahead of sending first crew to space station

BEIJING: A rocket that sent the first crew members to live on China’s new orbiting space station has been carried to the launch pad ahead of next week’s blast.

The three astronauts plan to spend three months on the space station, far longer than the length of any previous Chinese mission. They will undertake spacewalks, construction and maintenance, and conduct science experiments.

The main section of the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station was launched into orbit on 29 April. The cargo spacecraft sent last month carried fuel, food and equipment to the station to prepare for the crew’s mission.

The Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft was transferred to the launch pad of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Wednesday, China’s Manned Space Engineering Office said in a brief statement. Its expected launch date is next Wednesday.

The space agency is planning a total of 11 launches by the end of next year to deliver two laboratory modules to expand the 70-ton station, along with supplies and crew members. Next week’s launch will be the third of those and the first of four crewed missions.

According to reports, another cargo mission is planned for September, soon after which a replacement crew will be sent. The station’s other two modules are expected to be launched next year.

A three-member crew of astronauts will leave for a three-month mission to China's new space station in June.
A three-member crew of astronauts will leave for a three-month mission to China’s new space station in June.

China said in March that the training of astronauts for the upcoming crewed mission was a mix of space travel veterans and newcomers and included some women. China has so far sent 11 astronauts into space, all pilots of the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

According to Yang Liwei, who orbited Earth in China’s first crewed mission in 2003, the first Tianhe crew would be all men, although women would be part of the future crew on the station and are now an officer in the space agency.

Tianhe builds on the experience China gained from operating the first two experimental space stations in its increasingly ambitious space program. Chinese astronauts spent 33 days aboard the previous stations, conducted a spacewalk and taught science classes that were given to students across the country.

China last month landed a probe, Tianwen-1, on Mars that carried a rover, the Zurong. It has also brought back lunar samples, a first in any country’s space program since the 1970s, and landed a probe and rover on the less-explored far side of the Moon.

Beijing does not participate in the International Space Station, largely because of US concerns over the secrecy of the Chinese program and its military connections. Despite this, foreign science missions and possibly foreign astronauts are expected to visit the Chinese station in the future.

Once completed, Tianhe will allow a stay for up to six months, which is similar to the much larger International Space Station.

The Chinese station is reportedly to be used for 15 years and could overtake the ISS, which is nearing the end of its functional lifetime.


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