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China’s first crewed space mission in five years set for launch Thursday

China will send three astronauts into orbit on Thursday in what will be the country’s first crewed mission in five years.

Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo will head to an under-construction space station on the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft, hitching a ride atop a Long March-2F rocket, state-affiliated Global Times reported.

A Long March-2F rocket.
The Long March-2F rocket will launch three Chinese astronauts to a new space station in the country’s first crewed launch in five years. STR/Getty Images

The launch is expected to take place at 9:22 a.m. local time (9:22 p.m ET on Wednesday) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center about 900 miles west of Beijing.

The astronauts will spend three months aboard the Tianhe module of the space station, the core module that reached Earth orbit in April. During their stay, the crew, two of whom have already been to space, will prepare for the arrival of additional modules.

China is aiming to complete construction of the new space station by the end of next year and will use it to conduct science experiments in microgravity conditions — similar to how NASA uses the International Space Station (ISS). China’s station is orbiting Earth around 20 miles below the ISS, which is usually located about 250 miles above Earth.

China’s space station is likely to remain operational for at least 10 years, so it could outlast the aging ISS, which some have suggested may be taken out of service around 2030.

This week’s crewed voyage is the latest in a string of high-profile space missions by China as the country seeks to become a dominant player in the field of space exploration.

Recent launches overseen by the China National Space Administration have included a mission to Mars that recently put its first-ever rover onto the Martian surface. It also successfully completed a lunar mission toward the end of 2020 that brought moon rocks to Earth.

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