Tiangong: China sends youngest 3-astronaut crew to its space station

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 - and has just dispatched its youngest crew to a space station
This picture shows a facility at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on October 25, 2023. (Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)This picture shows a facility at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on October 25, 2023. (Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)
This picture shows a facility at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on October 25, 2023. (Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)

Just only two decades ago, China emerged as a candidate in the space race after it blasted its first astronaut Yang Liwe into space. Now, 20 years later, China has become a major player as it has its own post in orbit and routinely sends crews to live and work there.

Now, the country has sent its youngest crew, with an average age of 38, on the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center deep in the Gobi Desert, heading for the Tiangong space station for a six-month stay.

This picture shows a facility at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on October 25, 2023. (Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)This picture shows a facility at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on October 25, 2023. (Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)
This picture shows a facility at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China on October 25, 2023. (Image: PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images)

This is China's sixth manned mission to Tiangong since 2021. The new crew will take over from the Shenzhou-16 astronauts, who have been onboard since May and will repair the solar panels damaged by space debris, and this will mark the first time Chinese astronauts will carry out repair work outside the station.

Tiangong was completed in late 2022 and can have a maximum of three astronauts at an orbital altitude of up to 450 km (280 miles). It will have an operational lifespan of more than 15 years.

Leading the mission is former Air Force pilot Tang Hongbo, 48, who was on the first crewed mission to the space station in 2021. His fellow Shenzhou-17 crew members are Tang Shengjie, 33, and Jiang Xinlin, 35, who are both travelling to space for the first time.

China has announced plans to expand the Tiangong to allow for more than three astronauts to stay onboard at a time, and already has begun the selection process for the fourth batch of astronauts, seeking candidates with doctoral degrees in disciplines from biology, physics and chemistry to biomedical engineering and astronomy, and are opening the process to applicants from Hong Kong and Macau for the first time.

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