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In Divine Vessel, China eyes first human spaceflight since 2016

The Shenzhou-12, meaning Divine Vessel, will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete the Chinese space station by 2022

This photo taken on June 9, 2021 shows a Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for China's first manned mission scheduled for June 17 to its new space station, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the country's northwestern Gansu province. (AFP)

A Chinese spacecraft will blast off from the Gobi Desert on a Long March rocket in the coming days, ferrying three men to an orbiting space module for a three-month stay, the first time China has sent humans into space for nearly five years.

Shenzhou-12, meaning "Divine Vessel", will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete China's space station by 2022. Among them, four will be missions with people on board, potentially propelling up to 12 Chinese astronauts into space - more than the 11 men and women that China has sent since 2003.

The craft will also carry into space the hopes of some in Earth's most populous nation.

Also read: Perseverance, Hope and a fire god: a history of Mars rovers

"The motherland is powerful," one person wrote on Chinese social media, which has lit up with well-wishes for the Shenzhou-12 crew. "The launch is a gift to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party."

Chinese astronauts have had a relatively low international profile. A U.S. law banning Nasa from any connection with China means its astronauts have not been to the more than two-decade-old International Space Station, visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities.

China, which aims to become a major spacefaring power by 2030, in May became the second country to put a rover on Mars, two years after landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon. It also plans to put astronauts on the moon.

The Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft is transferred to the launch pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province, China June 9, 2021.
The Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft is transferred to the launch pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province, China June 9, 2021. (via REUTERS)

This time, men

The Shenzhou-12 crew is to live on the Tianhe, "Harmony of the Heavens", a cylinder 16.6 metres (55 feet) long and 4.2 metres (14 feet) in diameter.

The planned three-month stay would break the country's record of 30 days, set by the 2016 mission - China's last crewed flight - of Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng to a prototype station.

Three men from China's first and second batches of astronauts will be on this mission, Yang Liwei, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office and China's first astronaut, told state tabloid Global Times last month.

China's space bloggers speculate they will be Nie Haisheng - who at 56 would be China's oldest astronaut sent into space - Deng Qingming, 55, and Ye Guangfu, 40. The authorities typically do not announce a mission's crew until near or after the launch. China Manned Space did not respond to a Reuters fax request for comment.

While no women are scheduled for the Shenzhou-12 mission, they are expected to participate in every following mission, Yang told Global Times. Two women, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, were selected in 2011 among China's second cohort, after the first batch of 14 men in the mid-1990s. Liu was China's first woman in space in 2012, while Wang was the youngest, at 33, in 2013.

Chinese rover Zhurong and the lander of the Tianwen-1 mission, captured on the surface of Mars by a camera detached from the rover, are seen in this image released by China National Space Administration June 11, 2021.
Chinese rover Zhurong and the lander of the Tianwen-1 mission, captured on the surface of Mars by a camera detached from the rover, are seen in this image released by China National Space Administration June 11, 2021. (VIA REUTERS)

China began building its space station in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of its three modules. This year it aims to send a robotic cargo resupply spacecraft and three more astronauts, this time for a six-month stay.

Earlier this year, China's Zhurong rover also touched down successfully on Mars, the first ever successful probe landing by any country on its first Mars mission -- a milestone in China's ascent to becoming a space superpower.

According to an AFP report, the rover, which is named after a mythical Chinese fire god, has since been studying the topography of a vast Martian lava plain known as the Utopia Planitia. The six-wheeled, solar-powered, 240-kilogramme (530-pound) Zhurong is expected to spend three months taking photos, harvesting geographical data, and collecting rock samples on the red planet.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by William Mallard for Reuters)

Also read: China's Tianwen-1 enters parking orbit before landing rover on Mars

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