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China to Send First Civilian Astronaut to Tiangong Space Station on Tuesday

China's Tiangong Space Station

China’s Manned Space Agency will send its first civilian astronaut into space as part of the crewed Shenzhou XVI mission to the Tiangong space station on Tuesday. This development marks a significant step forward in China’s ambitions to establish a strong presence in outer space and catch up with the space programs of the United States and Russia.

Gui Haichao, a payload expert and professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has been selected as the first civilian astronaut to represent China. Gui’s role will primarily involve managing the on-orbit operation of space science experimental payloads. This momentous opportunity comes after a long journey for Gui, who first developed an interest in aerospace upon hearing the news of China’s first man in space, Yang Liwei, on campus radio in 2003.

The Shenzhou XVI mission crew also includes mission commander Jing Haipeng, who will embark on his fourth space mission, and engineer Zhu Yangzhu. The launch is scheduled to take place on Tuesday at 9:31 am local time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China.

Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace,” has been gradually taking shape, with its final module successfully docking with the core structure last year. This significant achievement allows China to maintain a long-term human presence in space. The Tiangong space station will remain in low Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 400 to 450 kilometers (250 to 280 miles) for at least 10 years.

Equipped with cutting-edge scientific equipment, including the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system, Tiangong will serve as a hub for conducting various scientific experiments and testing new technologies. Rotating teams of three astronauts will reside aboard the space station, contributing to research endeavors and furthering China’s space exploration goals. The Chinese National Space Administration has set its sights on launching a crewed lunar mission by 2029, further underscoring China’s commitment to advancing its space capabilities.

While the Tiangong space station does not aim to engage in global cooperation on the scale of the International Space Station, China has expressed openness to collaboration with international partners. The extent and nature of such cooperation, however, are yet to be determined.

China’s efforts in space exploration have gained momentum in recent years, with significant investments aimed at narrowing the gap with established space powers. As the world’s second-largest economy, China is determined to assert its position and make substantial contributions to human understanding and technological advancements in outer space.


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