China unveils younger lineup for next mission to its new space station, including first female astronaut

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China will send three astronauts, including the first female crew member, to live on its space station for six months on Saturday. This will be China’s longest-ever crewed space mission and the crew will set a record for the most time spent in space by Chinese astronauts.

The Shenzhou-13 spacecraft will be launched on a Long March-2F rocket early on Saturday morning from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestern China, the China Manned Space Programme announced.

This is China’s second of four planned crewed missions to the space station, which is due to be completed by the end of next year.

“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,” the space agency’s deputy director Lin Xiqiang told media personnel on Thursday.

The mission will be commanded by Zhai Zhigang, 55, who graduated from China's first batch of astronaut trainees in the late 1990s. Mr Zhai performed China’s first spacewalk.

Wang Yaping, 41, also a veteran in space travel, will be the first female astronaut to visit the new Chinese space station. She has carried out experiments and led a science class while on one of China’s earlier missions in 2013.

Ye Guangfu, 41, will be the third astronaut on the expedition. It will be his first time in space.

Beijing began construction of its first permanent space station in April with the launch of Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony”, the first and largest of the station’s three modules.

The first three-member crew — Tang Hongbo, Liu Boming and Nie Haisheng — returned in mid-September after serving a 90-day mission aboard the module. Members of the Shenzhou 13 mission are on average six years younger than their seniors, according to SCMP. Mr Nie, who is 56 years old, is China’s oldest active astronaut.

The new mission is expected to take forward the work of the initial crew, who conducted two spacewalks, deployed a 10m mechanical arm, and held a video call with Chinese president Xi Jinping.

China’s military, which runs the space programme, said that it will send multiple crews over the next two years to make the station functional. When completed with the addition of two more modules, Mengtian and Wentian, the station is expected to weigh 66 tons, a fraction of the size of the International Space Station, which was launched in 1998.

China, after being excluded from the International Space Station due to objections from the United States over the Chinese programme’s secrecy and close military ties, decided to build its own space stations in the early 1990s.

Beijing has so far sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, becoming the third country after the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States to achieve this feat.

The country this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose accompanying Zhurong rover has been exploring for evidence of life on the planet.

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