NEW DELHI, India — A crew of three astronauts is set to launch to China’s Tiangong space station next week for a six-month-long mission.
A Long March 2F rocket was rolled out to the pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, northwest China, early Oct. 19. The rocket is tipped with the Shenzhou-17 crew spacecraft and a telltale escape system atop the payload fairing.
The 62-meter-long rocket was transferred vertically across the roughly 1,500 meters from the assembly building to the pad at around 30 meters per minute.
“After comprehensive testing of various subsystems in the early stage, the rocket, the spacecraft, and the launch site are all currently in good condition,” He Pengju, an engineer at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, told China Central Television (CCTV).
China’s human spaceflight agency, CMSEO, announced the rollout without providing a launch date. Recent adjustments to the orbit of the Tiangong space station suggest a launch date of Oct. 26.
CMSEO, which is under the auspices of the People’s Liberation Army, also did not reveal the identity of the three crew members. Crews are typically unveiled at a press event a day before liftoff.
Shenzhou-17 will be the sixth crewed spaceflight mssion to Tiangong. The spacecraft will dock with the forward port of the Tiangong station’s Tianhe core module. Rendezvous and docking will likely be completed around seven hours after liftoff from Jiuquan.
The three astronauts will be greeted aboard the space station by the Shenzhou-16 crew, which arrived at Tiangong May 30. Shenzhou-16 astronauts Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao—the first Chinese civilian in space—will hand over the station to the incoming crew and return to Earth to conclude their near five-month-long stay in orbit.
Shenzhou-16 astronauts conducted a range of experiments and an eight-hour-long extravehicular activity in July. They also held a live and interactive science outreach class, during which they notably lit a match and candle.
China began constructing Tiangong in 2021 with the launch of Tianhe. The three-module orbital outpost was completed in late 2022 following the launch of the Wentian and Mengtian experiment modules.
The country is however planning to double the size of Tiangong in the coming years, a Chinese official said at the 47th International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan, earlier this month.
“We will build a 180 tons, six-module assembly in the future,” Zhang Qiao of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) said. A multi-functional expansion module with six docking ports will first be launched in the coming years to allow this expansion.
CMSEO has also been looking at opening Tiangong to various commercial purposes including tourism. It also recently selected four proposals to proceed to a detailed design study phase for developing low-cost supply missions to the space station.
China is also beginning preparations for crewed lunar missions, with the aim of putting a pair of astronauts on the moon before 2030.
“China has officially launched the human lunar exploration project. Although all the spacecraft have something in common, sending astronauts to the moon is still quite different from a near-Earth flight,” Tian Liping, an expert from the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, told CCTV Oct. 16.
“It has great technical difficulty and very high requirements for astronauts, for which we are making relevant preparations.”