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China to send youngest-ever crew to space station

JIUQUAN, China (AFP) – China will send its youngest-ever crew of astronauts to its Tiangong space station this week, officials said Wednesday, as Beijing pursues plans for a manned mission to the Moon by the end of the decade.

The Shenzhou-17 module carrying the three space travellers is scheduled to blast off at 11:14am (0314 GMT) Thursday from the Jiuquan launch site in China’s arid northwest.

“It is the crew of astronauts with the youngest average age since the launch of the space station construction mission,” Beijing’s State Council Information Office said in a statement.

The all-male trio will be led by Tang Hongbo — in his forties — on his first return mission to the Tiangong space station.

(L-R) Astronauts Jiang Xinlin, Tang Hongbo and Tang Shengjie attend a press conference at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in China’s northwestern Gansu province on October 25, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

Accompanying him will be Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin, both in their mid-thirties and each making their maiden space voyages on the Shenzhou-17 mission.

The crew has an average age of 38, compared to 42 for the crew of Shenzhou-16 when it launched.

“According to the plan, the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft will conduct autonomous rendezvous and docking procedures after entering orbit,” Lin Xiqiang, spokesperson for China’s space programme, said during a Wednesday morning press briefing.

It will dock with the station’s core module “about six-and-a-half hours” after first initiating the procedure, he added.

The Tiangong is the crown jewel of Beijing’s space programme, which has also landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and made China the third country to put humans in orbit.

Plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive under President Xi Jinping.

The world’s second-largest economy has pumped billions of dollars into its military-run space programme in an effort to catch up with the United States and Russia.

In June, the return capsule of the Shenzhou-15 spaceship touched down at a landing site in the northern Inner Mongolia region, with state media hailing the mission as a “complete success”.

That month also saw the launch of the Shenzhou-16 capsule, which carried the first Chinese civilian into orbit.

That crew will return to Earth on October 31 after completing a handover, officials said Wednesday.

Beijing also aims to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030 and plans to build a base on the lunar surface.

The final module of the T-shaped Tiangong — which means “heavenly palace” — successfully docked with the core structure last year.

The station carries several pieces of cutting-edge scientific equipment, according to state news agency Xinhua, including “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system”.

The Tiangong is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres (250 and 280 miles) above the planet for at least 10 years.

It is constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts.