BEIJING — A rocket carrying three astronauts to finish building China’s space station will take off on Tuesday amid intensifying competition with the United States, the government said Monday.
The crew includes a veteran of a 2005 space mission and two first-time astronauts, according to the China Manned Space Agency.
The Shenzhou-15 mission will take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi desert at 11:08 p.m. Tuesday night, the agency said. A Long March-2F carrier rocket, China’s standard workhorse for manned missions, will be used to launch it into space, he said.
The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last «in the construction phase of China’s space station,» agency official Ji Qiming told reporters on Monday.
Fei, 57, is a veteran of the four-day Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005, the second time China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang are making their first space flights.
The third and final station module docked with the station earlier this month, one of the latest steps in China’s decade-long effort to maintain a constant manned presence in orbit.
The astronauts will briefly overlap aboard the station, named Tiangong, with the previous crew, who arrived in early June for a six-month stay.
After the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft makes automatic docking with the front port of Tianhe’s core modules, the station will be expanded to its maximum size, with three modules and three spacecraft for a total mass of nearly 100 tons, it said. Hee.
It will also be at full capacity for several days. Tiangong has space to accommodate six astronauts at a time, and the handover will take about a week. Previous missions to the space station have taken about 13 hours from liftoff to docking.
Next year, China plans to launch the Xuntian Space Telescope, which, while not part of Tiangong, will orbit in sequence with the station and may occasionally dock with it for maintenance.
No other future additions to the space station have been publicly announced.
The permanent Chinese station weighs about 66 tons, a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 465 tons.
With a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, Tiangong could one day become the only space station still in operation if the International Space Station sticks to its 30-year operational plan.
China’s manned space program is officially three decades old this year, but it really began in 2003, when China became the third country after the United States and Russia to send a human into space using its own resources.
The program is run by the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and has proceeded methodically and almost entirely without outside support. The United States barred China from the International Space Station because of its program’s military ties.
China has also had success with unmanned missions, and its lunar exploration program caused a media stir last year when its Yutu 2 rover sent back images of what some described as a «mystery hut» but was likely just a rock. . The rover is the first to be placed on the little-explored far side of the moon.
China’s Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s in December 2000 and another Chinese rover is searching for evidence of life on Mars. Officials are also considering a manned mission to the moon.
No timetable for a crewed lunar mission has been offered, even as NASA presses ahead with its Artemis lunar exploration program that aims to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans there in 2025.
China’s space program has also generated controversy. Beijing has dismissed complaints that it allowed rocket stages to fall unchecked to Earth after NASA accused it of «failing to meet responsible standards regarding its space debris» when parts of a Chinese rocket landed on the ground. Indian Ocean.
China’s growing space capabilities also figure into the latest Pentagon defense strategy.
“In addition to expanding its conventional forces, the PLA is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and information warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare,” the strategy said.
The United States and China are at odds on a variety of issues, most notably the self-governance of Taiwan, which Beijing threatens to forcibly annex.