China will send three astronauts to its new space station this week, officials confirmed on Thursday in what will be Beijing’s longest crewed mission to date.
The trio will blast off at 12:23 a.m. Saturday from the launch center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said in a news conference on Thursday.
They will spend six months in Tianhe, the main module of the Tiangong space station.
CMSA’s deputy director Lin Ziqiang said their mission – twice as much as its record-holding predecessor – is to test “critical technologies” for assembling the Tiangong.
Lin said the mission will also include “two to three” spacewalks to install the components needed for future construction work.
The three “taikonauts” – as China calls its astronauts – include 55-year-old Commander Zhai Zhigang, a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter pilot who in 2008 conducted the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut.
Zhai said the main challenges for astronauts would include “more complicated” spacewalks than in previous missions, and the added physical and mental pressure of being in space for longer periods.
But the crew had the “confidence and ability” to achieve their objectives and “lived up to the great faith placed in us by the homeland and the people,” he added in a separate press conference on Thursday.
Another crew member, 41-year-old Wang Yaping, will become the first female astronaut to visit the country’s space station.
She had previously become China’s second woman in space in 2013.
The other member of the team is Ye Guangfu, 41, a former PLA pilot.
All three were backup crews for the first successful Shenzhou-12 mission, which concluded last month when the astronauts returned safely to Earth in a landing capsule.
The astronauts spent three months aboard Tiangong Station, which has separate living modules for each of them as well as a shared bathroom, dining area, and a communications center to allow for video calls with email sending and ground control.
The Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft into space was towed to the launch pad last Thursday, Chinese state media reported.
It is currently carrying propellant ahead of Saturday’s launch, Lin said.
China’s highly publicized space program has already seen the country land a rover on Mars and send probes to the Moon.
Beijing’s desire for a manned outpost of its own in Earth orbit was inspired by a US ban on its astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
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