China to launch second space station crew today

Editor's note: China's Shenzhou 13 mission has successfully launched into orbit. Read our wrap story here.

China is all set to launch its second crew of three astronauts to its new space station — including the first woman to visit the orbiting outpost.

The Shenzhou 13 spacecraft is scheduled to launch atop a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 12:23 p.m. EDT (1623 GMT) on Friday (Oct. 15; 00:23 Oct. 16 local time), Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency, revealed at a press conference on Thursday (Oct. 14). You can watch the launch live here and on the homepage, courtesy of the state-run China Central Television network, beginning at about 9:25 a.m. EDT (1325 GMT). 

Shenzhou 13 will launch just as China's orbiting Tianhe space station module passes over the launch site at Jiuquan, allowing the spacecraft to catch up and dock with Tianhe around eight hours later.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

The crew for the six-month-long mission were confirmed to be Zhai Zhigang (commander), Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu. The trio had been the backup to the recently completed Shenzhou 12 mission.

Zhai, who became the first Chinese citizen to carry out a spacewalk during the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008, will command the mission. This will be Ye's first flight, while Wang will become the first female astronaut to visit Tianhe. Wang was a member of the Shenzhou 10 mission in 2013 and delivered an educational lecture from space.

Major mission objectives for Shenzhou 13 include testing critical technologies for assembly and construction of the space station, which will receive two more modules in 2022.

Most notable is testing transferring a module from one docking port to another using manual teleoperation of Tianhe's robotic arm. The uncrewed Tianzhou 2 spacecraft, which delivered supplies for Shenzhou 12, will be used as a test article, Chinese officials said.

Two to three extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, are also planned during the Shenzhou 13 mission. The major objective will be to install an adaptor that will allow Tianhe's large arm to connect to another, smaller arm that will be on a future module.

Other objectives include further verification of the health, living and working support technologies for astronauts' six-month stay on orbit and the performance of scientific and technological experiments in fields such as space medicine and microgravity physics. 

Shenzhou 13 will dock at the nadir port of Tianhe, which faces Earth. This means the spacecraft will need to make a radial, or R-bar, rendezvous to get close to the module, approaching Tianhe from a direction perpendicular to the Earth, instead of along the line of Tianhe's flight path as with more routine docking maneuvers. 

The Long March 2F to launch Shenzhou 13 crew spacecraft being vertically transferred to the pad at Jiuquan, Oc. 7, 2021. (Image credit: CMSA)

Zhai, 55, is returning to space after 13 years. 

"Speaking on behalf of our crew and myself, I'm confident about, and capable of completing, the Shenzhou 13 mission. The confidence comes from the technological and physical preparations as well as the mastery of the spacecraft's equipment system," Zhai said at a press conference at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Thursday. “Confidence comes when these preparations are in place. With confidence, the spaceflight is not that difficult."

Spaceflight rookie Ye Guangfu, 41, expressed his delight at being selected: "I'm very happy to be able to carry out this mission. As a second-batch astronaut, I feel very honored and proud that I will stay in orbit for six months in my first space mission. At the same time, this is indeed a test for me, but I am fully confident that I can complete this task."

Asked if Wang Yaping would once again deliver a live lecture from orbit to students back in China, Lin confirmed that such public outreach activities would be a part of the Shenzhou 13 mission.

Lin also addressed safety procedures. In the event of a serious problem and loss of function of the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft, Lin said an emergency launch of a rescue spacecraft would be "initiated immediately to dock with the space station and bring astronauts back in a timely manner."

The Shenzhou 13 spacecraft and Long March 2F rocket for Friday's mission had previously been on standby at Jiuquan in case of an emergency affecting the Shenzhou 12 mission.

Launch is expected to be streamed by Chinese media, with another live feed accessible through the CGTN Youtube channel.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.