China has embarked on its first crewed space mission in nearly five years, launching a trio of astronauts into orbit to occupy its under-construction space station.
The three met with reporters Wednesday from inside a germ-free glassed-in room, hours before they were to blast off on Thursday morning.
Mission commander Nie Haisheng, 56, and fellow astronauts Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, are former People's Liberation Army Air Force pilots with graduate degrees and strong scientific backgrounds.
"This mission is more arduous and the challenges are greater". Nie said, per the BBC. "We have the confidence to complete the mission".
In the coming time, another 11 missions are planned to complete the construction of Tiangong in orbit. Tang, who was recruited as one of the second batch of candidates in 2010, is flying in space for the first time. "But where there is pressure there is motivation and".
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They are expected to set a new record for China's manned space mission duration, exceeding the 33 days spent by the Shenzhou-11 crew in 2016.
Carrying three astronauts, the Long March-2F rocket lifted off at 9:22 am local time (0122 GMT) in a cloud of smoke from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China's Gobi desert.
While the first Tianhe crew are all men, women will be part of future crews, officials have said.
China's government is excluded from the International Space Station program - the only space station in orbit.
"We're willing to carry out more extensive worldwide exchanges and cooperation with other countries on the issue of debris from spacecraft and in space", Ji said.
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The mission logo for the Shenzhou-12 mission that will take three Chinese astronauts to space this week.
"Exploring the vast universe, developing space activities, building a powerful space nation is our unremitting space dream", Ji said. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months.
The astronauts were seen off by space officials, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs.
The mission builds on experience China gained from earlier operating two experimental space stations. It could also outlast the International Space Station, which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan. The astronauts will be stationed in the core module.
The Chinese station reportedly is meant to be used for 15 years and may outlast ISS, which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan. The core capsule, called Tianhe, was launched back in April, is around the size of a bus and carries the station's life support systems, along with the living quarters for its crew. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don't go into orbit.
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The rocket used Thursday is of a different type and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.