China set to launch Shenzhou 11 mission


China has announced it will launch two taikonauts who will dock with its new orbiting space laboratory. The Shenzhou 11 mission is slated to launch early Monday morning from a remote northwestern province.

Taikonauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will be launched into space aboard the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft as it lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert on a Long March-2F carrier rocket, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported Sunday. The launch is scheduled for 7:30 a.m. (2330 UTC) Monday. The astronauts will dock with the brand-new Tiangong 2 space laboratory, where they will spend about a month orbiting Earth.

Jing, a 50-year-old astronaut who has already been to space twice, will command the mission to the lab, which was launched in September. “This mission is characterized by its longer duration and more tests,” Dong, the junior astronaut on the mission, told reporters. “We will focus on improving our ability to handle emergencies in orbit, medical first aid, mutual rescue capabilities and space experiments.”

President Xi Jinping has called for China to establish itself as a major space power, and it has tested anti-satellite missiles, in addition to its civilian programs. The craft, whose name translates as “Divine Vessel”, will also carry three experiments designed by Hong Kong middle school students and selected in a science competition, including one that will take silk worms into space.

A new frontier for Beijing

While China has historically focused on near-Earth space exploration, future missions will go further than 400 kilometer (249 miles), said Zhang Yulin, an official with the space program and the Central Military Commission. The country’s space program will soon move from exploratory testing to normal operations with the launch of the next space station, Xinhua news agency quoted Zhang as saying. “Then spacecraft launches won’t be like now, one every few years, instead there will be several each year,” he said.

Beijing has also signaled its intention of establishing its own manned space station by 2022, and eventually put one of its citizens on the surface of the moon. China is pouring billions into its space program in a bid to catch up with the United States and Europe. But so far the most populous country on Earth has largely replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago.

jar/kl (Reuters, AFP)