China to launch high-stakes crewed mission to space today

NASA Astronaut Danny Olivas on a spacewalk in 2010

The three astronauts flew to space as part of the Shenzhou 12 mission, China's first crewed mission since 2012.

Another 11 missions are planned over the next year and a half to complete the construction of Tiangong in orbit, including the attachment of solar panels and two laboratory modules.

After entering orbit, the Shenzhou-12 spaceship will dock with the in-orbit space station core module Tianhe, forming a complex with Tianhe and the cargo craft Tianzhou-2.

The mission brings to 14 the number of astronauts China has launched into space since its first crewed mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.

The mission will be China's longest crewed space mission to date and the first in almost five years, as Beijing pushes forward with its ambitious programme to establish itself as a space power.

Tiangong, which means "Heavenly Palace", is a modular station just like the International Space Station, albeit a smaller one with capacity for three astronauts rather than six.

Chinese astronauts, from left, Tang Hongbo, Liu Boming, and Nie Haisheng wave as they prepare to board for liftoff in China on Thursday. Pictures showed them busy at work unpacking equipment.

The mission is a matter of prestige for the Chinese government as it prepares to mark the 100th birthday of the ruling Communist Party on July 1.

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Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Agency, said in April that more than 20 cabinets aboard the space station will be reserved for scientific instruments designed in accordance with worldwide standards, adding that these will be available for global cooperation.

"We are willing to carry out global cooperation with any country that is committed to the peaceful use of outer space", Ji Qiming of the CMSA told reporters on Wednesday.

"So the astronauts can have a good rest in the space which should make them less exhausted", Gao said.

Tianhe is 16.6 metres long and 4.2 metres in diameter, and houses all the life support kit that the crew will need to live in space for three months.

China's desire for a human outpost of its own in Earth orbit was fuelled by a U.S. ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

China landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon's less explored far side and brought back the first lunar samples by any country's space program since the 1970s. Construction began in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of three modules.

A Long March-2F carrier rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and a crew of three astronauts, lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre.

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