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HomespaceChina's youngest-ever crew of astronauts heads to space station

China's youngest-ever crew of astronauts heads to space station

Beijing: Theyoungest-evercrewofChineseastronautsdeparted forChina’sspacestationon Thursday, paving the way for a new generationof”taikonauts”toadvance the country’sspaceambitions in the future.

The spacecraft Shenzhou-17, or “Divine Vessel”, and its three passengers lifted off atop a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestChina.

Leading the six-month mission was former air force pilot Tang Hongbo, 48, who was on the firstcrewedmissiontothespacestationin 2021.

His returntothe orbiting outpost Tiangong, or “Celestial Palace” in Chinese, also set a new record for the shortest interval between two spaceflight missions by taikonauts – coined from the Chinese word forspace- suggesting a faster rotationoftaikonauts in coming years.

Tang, fromChina’s second batchofastronautsin 2010, hadtowait more than a decade before he was picked for his inaugural spaceflight in 2021.

By contrast, his fellow Shenzhou-17crewmembers Tang Shengjie, 33, and Jiang Xinlin, 35, both travellingtospacefor the first time, joinedChina’s third batchofastronautsin September 2020.

Chinahas already kickstarted the selection process for the fourth batchofastronauts, seeking candidates with doctoral degrees in disciplines from biology, physics and chemistrytobiomedical engineering and astronomy.

It is also opening the processtoapplicants from Hong Kong and Macau for the first time.

The first and second batchesofastronautswere all former air force pilots, like Tang, who joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1995 at age 20.

Foreignastronauts

The selection and training process will commence soon for foreignastronautslookingtoparticipate in joint flightstoTiangong, a senior official onChina’s mannedspaceprogram said this year.

But as much asChinais showcasing its effortstointernationalise itsspacemissions, itsspaceprogram has distinct Chinese characteristics, at least on Tiangong.

In a departure from the NASA-led InternationalSpaceStation(ISS), where English is the working language, only Chinese is used on Tiangong, making

Chinese-language skills a key criteria for foreign participants.

Tiangong has become a symbolofChina’s growing confidence in itsspaceendeavours after being shut outofthe ISS program for decades.Chinais banned by U.S. law from any collaboration, direct or indirect, with NASA.

Tiangong, completed in late 2022, can house a maximumofthreeastronautsat an orbital altitudeofupto450 km (280 miles) and will have an operational lifespan ofmore than 15 years.

The Shenzhou-17astronautswill replace the Shenzhou-16crew, who arrived at Tiangong at the endofMay.

The Shenzhou-16 crew, consistingofveteranastronautJing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao, is scheduledtoreturntoearth on Oct. 31.

Zhu and Gui, both in their 30s, are fromChina’s third batchofastronauts.

Shenzhou-17 marksChina’s 12thcrewedmission since Yang Liwei’s solo spaceflight in October 2003, the first Chinese national inspace.

(Published 26 October 2023, 05:14 IST)

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