Three Chinese astronauts will blast off in the Shenzhou X spacecraft this month for a two-week mission to make final preparations for the construction of a space laboratory next year.
China Central Television reported yesterday that the spacecraft, mounted on top of a Long March 2F rocket, had been wheeled to a launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia, with the mission scheduled for the middle of this month.
The crew will dock the Shenzhou X with the Tiangong I space module and live there for more than a week, testing equipment and technology crucial to space station construction.
The entire mission will last about 15 days, or two days longer than the maiden flight to Tiangong I last year.
If the mission is a success, China will press ahead with the construction of a two-module space laboratory next year that could increase the amount of time that astronauts can stay in space from days to weeks.
The mainland space authorities said the crew had been chosen but, in keeping with tradition, their identities would not be disclosed until the last minute.
China has about 30 astronauts trained and mission-ready, but only nine have been to space before. This month's mission could be the last chance for some to join them because they are nearing retirement age.
Zhou Jianping , chief designer of China's manned space project, said at the annual meeting to the National People's Congress in March that the crew of Shenzhou X would be completely different from the crew last year. He also expected one member to be a woman.
Liang Xiaohong , a chief designer of the Long March rockets, told Xinhua the astronauts' safety was their top concern, and the new rocket would be safer than ever before.
The team had made 17 improvements to the rocket's reliability, she said. A fully automatic ejection system meant the astronauts would be able to bail out and land safely during the climb, even after leaving the earth's atmosphere.
Later this year, a lunar probe will be launched to land on the moon and deploy a robotic rover, the first since the early 1970s.