China rolled out a Long March 2F rocket Wednesday in preparation to send the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and three astronauts to their new orbiting space station module.
The main section of the Tianhe or Heavenly Harmony space station was sent into orbit on April 29, while a supply mission last month sent up fuel, food, and equipment in preparation for next week’s crewed mission.
The Long March 2F rocket was vertically transferred to its pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) announced Wednesday, according to SpaceNews.com.
Before launch, ground crews at Jiuquan will load storable hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants into the Long March 2F rocket. This toxic propellant mixture will feed the rocket’s engines, which will produce about 1.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
Authorities have yet to reveal the launch date or the identity of the three-person crew or the backup crew. However, Shenzhou-12 was expected to launch around June 10, Beijing time, but a week-long delay for the launch of the Tianzhou-2 cargo mission likely pushed back the date a bit.
According to the Associated Press, next week’s launch will be the third of 11 planned missions to the new space station, and the first of the four crewed missions planned.
Another cargo mission is planned for September this year, and the crew going to the station next week will then be replaced with a new crew. The station’s other two modules are expected to be launched next year.
Last month, according to Space Flight Now, China’s first astronaut — Yang Liwei — said all three crew members are men and come from the first two classes of Chinese astronauts. Future crews on China’s space station will include women, he said.
Looking to the future, the Chinese space station is expected to operate in orbit for at least ten years. It will be joined in orbit by the Xuntian optical module, a co-orbiting Hubble-class space telescope.
The space telescope will have a 2-meter-aperture comparable to Hubble but feature a field of view 300 times greater. This will allow Xuntian to survey 40 percent of the sky across a decade using its 2.5 billion pixel camera.