Officials stated Wednesday that China will send its youngest-ever crew of astronauts to the Tiangong space station this week, as the country pursues plans for a human mission to the Moon by the end of the decade.
Tiangong is the crowning achievement of Beijing’s space program, which has previously placed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon and made China the third country to place humans in space.
The station is constantly crewed by three-person teams that rotate out every six months.
The Shenzhou-17 module, which will transport the trio to the station, is set to launch from the Jiuquan launch site in China’s desert northwest at 11:14 a.m. (0314 GMT) Thursday.
“It is the crew of astronauts with the youngest average age since the launch of the space station construction mission,” said the State Council Information Office in Beijing.
Tang Hongbo, who is on his first return voyage to the Tiangong space station, will lead the all-male trio.
“Throughout the past two years, I have often dreamt of going back to space,” Tang said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“The space station is our other home that takes us away from Earth and into the universe,” he added.
Accompanying him will be Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin, both in their thirties and each making maiden space voyages.
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.
Plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive under President Xi Jinping.
In an effort to catch up with the United States and Russia, the world’s second-largest economy has poured billions of dollars into its military-run space program.
The Shenzhou-15 spaceship’s return capsule came down at a landing location in northern Inner Mongolia in June, with official media praising the mission as a “complete success.”
That same month, the Shenzhou-16 capsule launched, carrying the first Chinese civilian — Beihang University professor Gui Haichao — into orbit.
Officials confirmed Wednesday that the crew will return to Earth on October 31 after completing a handover.
Beijing also intends to deploy a crewed trip to the Moon by 2030, as well as to establish a base on the lunar surface.
Spokesperson Lin reiterated that aim Wednesday, saying that the “goal of landing Chinese people on the moon by 2030 will be realised as scheduled”.
The country’s lunar goals were hampered in 2017 when the powerful Long March-5 Y2 rocket failed to launch on a mission to orbit communication satellites.
This prompted the Chang’e-5 launch, which was previously intended to collect Moon samples in the second half of 2017.
Another robot, the Chang’e-4, made a historic maiden landing on the far side of the Moon in January 2019.
Chang’e-5 eventually arrived on the Moon in 2020, planting a Chinese flag and returning the first lunar samples to Earth in four decades.
Last year, the final module of the T-shaped Tiangong — which means “heavenly palace” — docked successfully with the core structure.
According to state news agency Xinhua, the station carries “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system” among other things.
The Tiangong is intended to stay in low Earth orbit for at least ten years, hovering between 400 and 450 kilometers (250 and 280 miles) above the globe.