The China Manned Space Agency announced Saturday that it is prepared to launch a new three-person mission to finish work on its permanent orbiting space station. The Shenzhou 14 crew will stay aboard the Tiangong station for six months, overseeing the integration of two laboratory modules into the main Tianhe living room, which was launched in April 2021.
Their spacecraft is scheduled to launch at 10:44 a.m. Sunday (0244 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert, according to the agency. The Long March 2F rocket, which is the workhorse of the crewed space flight programme, will provide propulsion.
Commander Chen Dong and astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe will put together the three-module construction that will connect the existing Tianhe with the Wentian and Mengtian spacecraft, which are expected to arrive in July and October, respectively. The Tianzhou-3, another supply ship, is still moored at the station.
The new modules will bring “greater stability, more powerful functionality, and more complete equipment,” according to Chen, 43, who served on the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016. Liu, 43, is a space veteran who made history as China’s first female astronaut aboard the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012. Cai, 46, is on his first voyage into space.
After the former Soviet Union and the United States, China’s space programme launched its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, making it only the third country to achieve so on its own. Last year, it landed robot rovers on the moon and sent one to Mars. China has also returned lunar samples, and officials have considered the possibility of a crewed lunar mission.
The People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, is in charge of China’s space programme, forcing the United States to remove it from the International Space Station. The crew of the forthcoming Shenzhou 15 will join Chen, Liu, and Cai for three to five days at the end of their mission, marking the first time the station has had six people aboard.