China to send astronauts on longest crewed mission

BEIJING (AP) – China is preparing to send three astronauts to live on its space station for six months — a new milestone for a programme that has advanced rapidly in recent years.

It will be China’s longest crewed space mission and set a record for the most time spent in space by Chinese astronauts. The Shenzhou-13 spaceship is expected to be launched into space on a Long March-2F rocket early tomorrow morning from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northwestern China. The first crew who served a 90-day mission aboard the main Tianhe core module of the space station returned in mid-September.

The new crew has two veterans of space travel. Pilot Zhai Zhigang, 55, performed China’s first spacewalk. Wang Yaping, 41, and the only woman on the mission, carried out experiments and led a science class in real-time while travelling on one of China’s earlier experimental space stations. Ye Guangfu, 41, will be travelling into space for the first time. The three later spoke to reporters through a glass barrier at the Jiuquan base, with Zhai saying the length of the mission would be a challenge, but one he was confident they were prepared to meet.

“After almost two years of training (together), our crew members now know each other well and have a tacit understanding. I believe that with the power and wisdom of our team, (we) will definitely resolve all difficulties,” Zhai said.

Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who lived on Russia’s old Mir space station in 1994 and 1995, holds the record for the longest stay in space at more than 14 months.

Chinese astronauts Ye Guangfu, Zhai Zhigang and Wang Yaping at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China. PHOTO: XINHUA VIA AP

The mission is expected to continue the work of the initial crew, who conducted two spacewalks, deployed a 10-metre mechanical arm, and held a video call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

China Manned Space Agency Deputy Director Lin Xiqiang said the rocket was fuelled and ready to fly.

“All systems conducting the Shenzhou-13 mission have undergone a comprehensive rehearsal. The flight crew is in good condition and our pre-launch preparations are in order,” Lin said at yesterday’s briefing.

The crew’s scheduled activities include up to three spacewalks to install equipment in preparation for expanding the station, verifying living conditions in the module and conducting experiments in space medicine and other areas, Lin said.