China is gearing up to send a new crew up to the newly-completed space station.
A Long March 2F rocket tipped with the Shenzhou 15 crew spacecraft was rolled out to the pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on Monday (Nov. 21), China's human spaceflight agency, CMSA, announced.
The rocket was transferred vertically around 0.9 miles (1.5 kilometers) from the assembly building to the launch pad. The Long March 2F/Shenzhou combination has a tell-tale spike above the payload fairing which is an escape system to carry the crew capsule to safety in the event of a dangerous launch anomaly.
CMSA has yet to announce who the three mission crew members will be, nor has it released a planned time and date for launch. However the rollout indicates that China aims to launch Shenzhou 15 before the end of November, and primary and backup crews will be on standby at the launch center.
The Tianzhou 5 cargo spacecraft was launched to the space station on Nov. 11 to deliver supplies for the upcoming crew missions.
After launch Shenzhou 15 will head for the Tiangong space station. The crew will be greeted aboard the newly-completed, three-module space space station by the Shenzhou 14 mission astronauts.
The mission will mark the first crew handover and the first time Tiangong has been fully operational. The Shenzhou 14 astronauts — who were aboard to oversee two modules launched to Tiangong — will then be expected to return home in early December, days after the arrival of Shenzhou 15.
China aims to keep the station permanently occupied for at least a decade, with crews of three spending six months at a time aboard Tiangong, carrying out a range of science experiments and outreach activities.
China could also open Tiangong to foreign astronauts and even to tourists at some point in the future, according to statements made by Chinese officials.
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Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com 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.