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China is preparing to launch three astronauts to its new space station

A Long March 2F rocket undergoes testing in the factory in Beijing, in January 2021.
A Long March 2F rocket undergoes testing in the factory in Beijing, in January 2021. (Image credit: CASC)

China is getting ready to launch three astronauts on a mission to visit the first module for the country's new space station.

The Shenzhou 12 spacecraft and the Long March 2F rocket for the launch have been delivered by rail to Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, the China Manned Space Engineering Office announced April 15. The spacecraft and launcher are now undergoing final assembly and testing at the launch site, CMSEO said. 

The Shenzhou 12 mission will send three taikonauts, as China's astronauts are known, into low Earth orbit. Their Shenzhou spacecraft will rendezvous and dock with the Tianhe space station module, which is expected to launch late Wednesday (April 28), sometime after 11:20 p.m. EDT (0320 April 29 GMT). 

Related: With 1st space station launch this spring, Chinese astronauts are training for flight

China has not revealed many details of the mission. However, the delivery of the rocket and spacecraft and the imminent launch of the Tianhe module indicate the crewed mission could be ready to fly in June.

Before the crew launch, a robotic Tianzhou cargo spacecraft will visit Tianhe to deliver supplies and propellant to the module. Tianzhou 2 and its Long March 7 rocket have just arrived at Wenchang in south China in preparation for launch in May.

Chinese officials have not yet revealed the identities of the Shenzhou 12 crewmembers, and China has previously kept such information closely guarded until close to launch. China's astronauts are however in intensive training for space station missions.

It is also not clear how long the Shenzhou 12 mission will last. The mission is the first of the construction phase of the Chinese Space Station and the astronauts could spend months in orbit testing systems and preparing for the arrival of the next modules and Tianzhou spacecraft. 

A Long March 2F undergoes testing in July 2020. (Image credit: CMSEO)

China is planning 11 missions across 2021 and 2022 to complete the space station complex, including three-module launches, four Tianzhou cargo ship missions and four crewed Shenzhou missions.

Once operational the station will be home to three taikonauts for three months at a time. It will also be able to host six crewmembers for a limited time during mission changeovers. 

The completed outpost is expected to be about one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station, a project from which China was barred by the United States. 

Chinese space officials have stated that a Long March 2F and Shenzhou spacecraft will be on standby at Jiuquan at all times in case an emergency rescue mission needs to launch to the space station.

In 2003 China became only the third country to achieve independent human spaceflight, following the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States. China has so far launched six crewed missions. The most recent was the monthlong, two-crewmember Shenzhou-11 mission in 2016.

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Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.