China will send a crew of three to its under-construction space station on Tuesday, and also announced plans for a manned mission to the Moon amid intensifying competition with the US.
The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced that the Shenzhou-15 crewed spacecraft will be launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.
The spacecraft will carry three astronauts — Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu — to carry out the spaceflight mission.
Fei will be the mission commander, Ji Qiming, assistant to the director of CMSA, told the media.
The crew will remain in orbit for about six months, a period in which construction of the low-orbit space station is expected to be completed.
Ji said the launch will be carried out by a Long March-2F carrier rocket, which will soon be filled with propellant.
After entering orbit, the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft will perform a rapid, automated rendezvous and dock with the front port of the space station’s core module called Tianhe, Ji said.
While in orbit, the Shenzhou-15 crew will witness the arrival of the Tianzhou-6 cargo craft and the Shenzhou-16 manned spacecraft.
China is launching multiple rockets amid concerns about falling rocket debris, which is scattered around the world.
The official news agency Xinhua reported that the Shenzhou-15 astronauts will return in May next year.
This is the third manned mission to be launched by China to connect to its space station.
Two batches of three astronauts were sent to the space station on missions of six months each to man the orbital station.
While one set of astronauts returned, another set of three astronauts is currently based in Tianhe.
The construction of the low-orbit space station was expected to be completed this year as previously announced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC).
Once ready, China will be the only country to have a space station. Russia’s International Space Station (ISS) is a collaborative project of several countries.
The China Space Station (CSS) is also expected to be a competitor to the ISS built by Russia. Observers say the CSS could become the only space station to remain in orbit after the ISS is retired in the coming years.
Ji also announced plans to send a manned mission to the Moon amid intense competition with the US.
The US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched its most powerful rocket on 16 November from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The 100-metre-long Artemis vehicle was intended to launch an unmanned astronaut capsule in the direction of the Moon.
The spacecraft, known as Orion, is unmanned for this particular flight, but its future missions will be manned missions to explore the lunar surface.
China has completed key technology research and verification of the manned lunar exploration project to formulate a moon landing implementation plan with “Chinese characteristics”.
He said China has made breakthroughs in the development of a new generation crew spacecraft, a new generation man carrier rocket, a moon lander and a moon landing spacesuit, taking a step closer to its moon landing goal.
“China’s strides in space exploration will not only remain in low-Earth orbit, and we will definitely fly further,” Ji said.
“The country is ready to implement the lunar landing project. I believe the dream of landing on the moon will come true in the near future,” Xinhua news agency quoted Ji as saying.
China has successfully launched uncrewed missions to the Moon in the past, including Yutu 2, a rover that sent back pictures of the little-explored far side of the Moon.
In December 2000, China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth. China has also sent a rover to Mars.