China’s first crewed mission to its new space station is scheduled to blast off tomorrow morning from a launchpad at the Jiuquan Space Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert. The mission will be China’s longest crewed mission to date.
The three-person crew will launch to the new space station, called Tiangong, in a Long March-2f rocket at 9:22 a.m. local time, according to the China Manned Space Agency as reported by AFP. They’re heading for the 16.76 m-long core module of the space station, called Tianhe, which was launched in April. The launch caused a stir last month when the rocket that carried the module made an uncontrolled atmospheric reentry.
After Tianhe went up — the first of 11 planned launches to complete the new space station — China launched nearly seven tons of cargo to the orbiting station, Space News reported. Those goods were delivered in anticipation of tomorrow’s new arrivals, as the crew is expected to stay at the station for three months and will need various things to keep them busy and healthy. According to the Chinese space agency, the astronauts will have 120 different types of food as well as treadmills and stationary bicycles, which, as this European Space Agency video shows, are basically like the Earth versions but with straps and bars to resist microgravity. Tianhe has a dining area, one bathroom, and separate living quarters for each astronaut.
Though the three astronauts are heading to Tianhe tomorrow, the space station isn’t expected to be fully operational until 2022. Ji Qiming, the assistant director general of the China Manned Space Agency, said in a press conference that the astronauts — Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo — will be completing extravehicular activities and working alongside the station’s robotic arm, which the agency said will be used to help position spacecraft to dock and clear nearby space of junk. Though some American officials expressed concerns about Tianhe’s planned robotic arm, suggesting it could be used to disable satellites, the International Space Station also has a robotic arm, which was recently damaged by a hunk of space junk.
Tomorrow’s launch will be the first of four planned crewed space flights out of the total 11 missions the Chinese space agency thinks it’ll need to complete the Tiangong station by the end of next year. The launch will also mark China’s first crewed mission in nearly five years and will be the longest amount of time any Chinese astronaut will stay in space.