China is gearing up to send the third crew to its new Tiangong space station, with launch set for late Saturday (June 4) U.S. Eastern time.
The Shenzhou 14 spacecraft, sitting atop a Long March 2F rocket, was rolled out to its pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Sunday (May 29), according to China’s human spaceflight agency.
Launch is expected around 10:40 p.m. EDT on June 4 (0240 GMT or 10:40 a.m. local time on Sunday, June 5) according to airspace closure notices. Livestreams of the launch are expected to be made available closer to liftoff.
Three Chinese astronauts and another three-person backup crew are in quarantine ahead of launch at Jiuquan, but the identities of the astronauts have not yet been revealed.
"The spacecraft system and the rocket system are both in good condition,” Zhang Fusheng, chief designer for the crewed spacecraft system, told CCTV, adding that the final assembly and testing had been completed.
The three Shenzhou 14 crewmates will spend around six months aboard Tianhe, the core module of the Tiangong space station. They will be aboard to receive two new modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, which are due to launch in late July and October, respectively.
Those two coming missions will see the completion of the T-shaped space station.
Back in the assembly building at Jiuquan, another Long March 2F rocket and the Shenzhou 15 spacecraft are being readied for potential use in case of an emergency in orbit.
"We started preparing two rockets and two spacecraft for every launch mission when the space station was still under construction, and we call it 'rolling' launch," Deng Xiaojun, the "commander zero" for the Shenzhou 14 mission, told CCTV.
"If the astronauts in space find themselves in an emergency and need to return immediately, we will activate the emergency rescue launch in the shortest period of time to bring them back," Deng added.
If everything goes well, however, Shenzhou 15 will launch as planned in December or thereabouts. The three crew members will join the Shenzhou 14 astronauts aboard Tiangong for the station's first-ever crew handover.