A rocket carrying three veteran astronauts bound for China's orbiting space station module will launch from the Gobi Desert in the country's north in just over 24 hours, China's space agency announced Wednesday.
The three men, Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, will become the first Chinese astronauts to land on the initial stages of the space station, called Tiangong or Heavenly Palace, which is still under construction in a low Earth orbit.
China's Manned Space Engineering Office made the announcement at a news conference on Wednesday, saying the launch would take place at 9:22 a.m. Beijing time (9:22 p.m. ET) Thursday from Jiuquan Space Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
The mission, called Shenzhou-12 or Divine Vessel, is the first of four planned Tiangong missions, according to state media, and marks a significant milestone in China's rapidly expanding space program. In the past seven months, the country's scientists have already successfully landed exploratory rovers on the moon in December and on Mars in May.
As part of its plans to have a fully crewed space station by December 2022, China successfully launched the first core module, known as Tianhe or Harmony of the Heavens, on April 29. The module is the largest spacecraft developed by China to date, with a total length of 16.6 meters (55 feet) and a living space of 50 cubic meters (1,765 cubic feet), according to China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
The three-man crew will be led by Nie Haisheng, the oldest member of the team. The launch will mark Nie's third trip into space, having been aboard China's first mission with more than one astronaut in 2005, and its 2013 mission to test its docking technology.
Liu Boming, the second oldest team member, joined China's 2008 space mission, in which he helped Zhai Zhigang become the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. The crew's youngest member, Tang Hongbo, is the only one of the three yet to travel to space, despite training for 11 years, according to state media.
According to an official at China's Manned Space Engineering Office, the astronauts will conduct two spacewalks to install equipment on the space station during their mission.
There is no official announcement yet on when the other sections of the space station will launch, but the module is expected to operate for at least 10 years.
A cargo spacecraft, carrying supplies for the three astronauts including food, equipment and propellant, docked with the space station on May 30, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.
Chinese astronauts have long been excluded from the international space station (ISS), due to US political objections and legislative restrictions. Russia, a longtime contributor on the ISS, has also left the project and is now considering its own space station to launch by 2030.
China has previously operated two space labs in orbit, the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, both of which were trials for the larger space station the country is now constructing.
In its last space launch, China sent the core module of its space station into orbit in May using a heavy lift Long March 5B rocket that made an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. NASA criticized China for its failure to "meet responsible standards" after debris from its out-of-control rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean.
For this crewed launch, China is expected to use a smaller Long March-2F rocket that has been used by China's human spaceflight program since its first mission in 1999, said Stijn Lemmens, senior space debris mitigation analyst at the European Space Agency. Unlike the Long March 5, he said that the core stage of this rocket, based on the past 14 launches, would not reach orbital velocity and would likely re-enter the atmosphere and land in a predetermined impact zone.
However, he said that the risk posed couldn't be assessed without detailed design information, which China does not typically release.
If the rocket did remain in orbit after launch, he said ESA would follow this re-entry, as it would for any trackable space object and provide regular predictions via ESA's website and a detailed assessment if requested by its member states.