Chinese officials unveiled plans for Monday’s launch of the country’s latest space mission in which two astronauts will be blasted into space and will dock with an orbiting space lab. The Shenzhou 11 spacecraft will be launched at 7:30 a.m., said Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s manned space engineering office, in a televised news conference. The Shenzhou mission will take off aboard a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China.
The spacecraft will dock with the Tiangong 2 space station within two days and the astronauts will stay there for 30 days to test the complex’s ability to support their life. They will also conduct medical and scientific experiments, Wu said.
An earlier Tiangong 1 experimental space station launched in 2011 went out of service in March after extending its mission for two years and docking with three visiting spacecraft. The Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” stations are considered stepping stones to a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.
Wu identified the astronauts flying the mission as 49-year-old Jing Haipeng and 37-year-old Chen Dong. It will be Jing’s third flight into space following missions in 2008 and 2012. “It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” Jing said at a separate briefing.
The state-run China Youth Daily newspaper said Jing would celebrate his 50th birthday in space.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so, and has since staged a spacewalk and landed its Yutu rover on the moon. Administrators suggest a manned landing on the moon may also be in the program’s future.