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China set to launch space station crew: Three things to know

The astronauts will spend three months in space working on scientific experiments and conducting spacewalks

Astronauts Nie Haisheng, centre, Liu Boming, right, and Tang Hongbo, the first crew for China's new space station, address the media during a briefing the day before their launch, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert, in northwest China on June 16, 2021. (AFP)

On Thursday, 17 June, China will be sending its first crewed mission to its new space station. The mission will be China's longest crewed space mission to date and the first in nearly five years, as the country pushes forward with an ambitious programme to establish itself as a space power. The three astronauts -- mission commander Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54 and Tang Hongbo, 45 -- met with reporters on Wednesday from inside a germ-free glassed-in room, hours before their launch on Thursday morning.

Why is this important? China doesn’t participate in the International Space Station, mostly due to US concerns over the Chinese space program’s secrecy and its military connections, according to an Associated Press report. The International Space Station is also nearing the end of its functional lifespan.

Also read: 20 years of life and science on the International Space Station

According to an AFP report, another 11 missions are planned over the next year and a half to complete the construction of the Tiangong space station in orbit, including the attachment of solar panels and two laboratory modules. Here’s a look at some key facts about this mission:

The spacecraft

The astronauts will be traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket, which is set to blast off at 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China. The spacecraft will then dock with the main section of the Tiangong space station, named Tianhe, which was placed in orbit on 29 April this year.

A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for China's first crewed mission to its new space station, scheduled for June 17, sits on the launch pad encased in a shield at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on June 16, 2021.
A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for China's first crewed mission to its new space station, scheduled for June 17, sits on the launch pad encased in a shield at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on June 16, 2021. (AFP)

The space station

The Tiangong is expected to have a lifespan of at least 10-15 years. Once it is completed, the station will allow for stays of up to six months, similar to the much larger International Space Station. All astronauts will have their own living area, and a stationary bike and other exercise equipment that will allow them to counter some of the effects of weightlessness.

While the first Tianhe crew are all men, women will be part of future crews, an AP report explains. Foreign science missions and possibly foreign astronauts are expected to visit the Chinese station in the future, China Manned Space Agency Assistant Director Ji Qiming told reporters at Jiuquan, according to the AP report.

A staff member of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre wears the logo of China's new space station during a press conference about the first crewed mission to the station, scheduled for June 17.
A staff member of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre wears the logo of China's new space station during a press conference about the first crewed mission to the station, scheduled for June 17. (AFP)

Duration and activities

The astronauts will spend three months on the Tiangong station, which has separate living modules for each of them as well as a shared bathroom, dining area, and a communication centre to send emails and allow video calls with ground control, the AFP report explains. The astronauts will also be kept busy testing and maintaining the systems onboard, conducting spacewalks and undertaking scientific experiments, the report adds.

Also read: In Divine Vessel, China eyes first human spaceflight since 2016

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