China’s youngest-ever crew of astronauts has taken off on a six-month mission to its space station, in a growing space programme that plans to send people to the Moon by 2030.
The crew of the Shenzhou-17 lifted off on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 11.14am (03:14 GMT) on Thursday morning.
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The crew of three is led by 48-year-old former air force pilot Tang Hongbo, who joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1995 and was on the first crewed mission to the space station, known as the Tiangong, in 2021.
The other astronauts, known as taikonauts in China, are Tang Shengjie, 33, and Jiang Xinlin, 35, who are on their first trip to space.
The all-male crew is the youngest ever to man a mission to the space station, with an average age of 38.
After the rocket had been airborne for about 15 minutes, a space programme official proclaimed the launch a “complete success”.
China’s “space dream” has gone into overdrive under President Xi Jinping.
The world’s second-largest economy has pumped billions of dollars into its military-run space programme in an effort to catch up with the United States and Russia.
Tiangong, completed in late 2022, can house a maximum of three astronauts at an orbital altitude of up to 450km (280 miles) with an operational lifespan of more than 15 years.
The Shenzhou 17 astronauts will replace the Shenzhou-16 crew, who arrived at Tiangong at the end of May and will return to Earth on October 31.
Beijing aims to send a crewed mission to the Moon by 2030 and plans to build a base on the lunar surface.
Deputy director Lin reiterated that aim on Wednesday, saying that the “goal of landing Chinese people on the moon by 2030 will be realised as scheduled”.
China’s first astronauts were all former air force pilots, but selection has been widened in recent years and as it begins selection for its fourth group of space travellers China is looking for candidates with doctoral degrees in disciplines from biology, physics and chemistry to biomedical engineering and astronomy. It is also opening the process to applicants from Hong Kong and Macau for the first time.
A senior official on China’s crewed space programme said earlier this year that Beijing would also soon commence the selection and training process for foreign astronauts looking to participate in joint flights to the Tiangong.
Applicants will need to be fluent in Mandarin, which is the working language of the Tiangong.