China is set to launch three astronauts into orbit to begin occupation of the country’s new space station on Thursday morning.
The three men are expected to spend three months living and working aboard the Tianhe module some 380km above the Earth. It will be China’s longest crewed space mission to date and the first in nearly five years.
Their Shenzhou-12 capsule is in place on top of its Long March 2F rocket and lift-off from the Jiuquan satellite launch centre in the Gobi Desert is expected at 9.22am Beijing time.
The primary mission objective for Commander Nie Haishen and his crew is to bring the 22.5-tonne Tianhe module into service.
Nie, 56, is a veteran of two previous flights, which included a 15-day visit in 2013 to the prototype space station, Tinagong-1.
“We need to set up our new home in space and test a series of new technologies. So, the mission is tough and challenging,” said Nie. “I believe with the three of us working closely together, doing thorough and accurate operations, we can overcome our challenges. We have the confidence to complete the mission.”
The 16.6m-long, 4.2m-wide Tianhe module was launched in April. It is the first and core component in what will eventually be a near 70-tonne orbiting outpost, comprising living quarters, science labs and even a Hubble-class telescope to view the cosmos.
The various elements will be launched in turn over the course of the next couple of years. The construction will be accompanied by regular cargo deliveries, as well as crew expeditions.
The food, fuel and equipment the trio will need during their stay aboard Tianhe was delivered by a robotic freighter last month.
This freighter is still attached, and the men will make unpacking its supplies their first task as soon as they’ve settled in. Included in the delivery are two spacesuits they’ll need to conduct spacewalks on the exterior of Tianhe.
China has gone it alone in developing a space station, in part because it has been excluded from the International Space Station project by the US.
China says it is prepared to open its station to foreign involvement. This is likely in the first instance to mean hosted scientific experiments, but very probably also will involve visits by non-Chinese nationals.
Russia, which has shared technology in the past with China, has mentioned in the past the possibility of sending its cosmonauts.
At Wednesday’s press conference to introduce the Shenzhou-12 crew, Ji Qiming, an assistant director with China’s human spaceflight agency, said: “We welcome cooperation in this regard in general. It is believed that, in the near future, after the completion of the Chinese space station, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts fly and work together.”