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China launches Shenzhou-17 crew for 6-month stay on space station

October 25, 2023

— China has launched a new three-person crew to its space station, led by the first taikonaut to make a return visit to the orbiting outpost.

Tang Hongbo, who was a member of the Tiangong space station's first resident crew in 2012, lifted off as commander of China's Shenzhou-17 spacecraft on Wednesday (Oct. 25), together with first time fliers Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin. The three launched atop a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 11:14 p.m. EDT (0314 GMT or 11:14 a.m. Beijing Time on Oct. 26).

The trio are expected to log six months on the three-module Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") as the station's sixth expedition crew. During their stay, they will conduct science experiments and technology demonstrations, as well as carry out extravehicular activities (EVAs or spacewalks) focused on installing payloads and, for the first time, perform maintenance tasks.

Tang, Tang and Jiang are also scheduled to oversee the first expansion to the space station, transforming it from a T-shaped complex to a cross shape. An extension module designed to serve as a logistics module will be launched and mated to the Tiangong during the Shenzhou 17 mission.

Launch of China's Shenzhou-17. Click to enlarge video in new pop-up window. (CCTV)

When Tang, Tang and Jiang arrive at the station six and a half hours after their launch, they will be met by the Shenzhou 16 crew of Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao, who have been in space since May 29. After completing a brief period working as a six-person crew — the third such direct handover in China's history — Jing, Zhu and Gai will undock on Shenzhou-16 and return to Earth at the Dongfeng landing site in the Gobi Desert on Oct. 31.

Tang Hongbo, 48, previously logged 92 days on the Shenzhou-12 mission to the space station and has set a new record for the shortest interval between two missions by a taikonaut. A pilot in the People's Liberation Army Air Force, he was selected to train for space in 2010.

"I'm solely focused on the mission, on how to accomplish the mission successfully," said Tang Hongbo during a pre-launch press conference held on Wednesday. "I have to get prepared every minute, every second, and this was my aspiration when I joined the PLA Astronaut Corps (PLAAC), and that aspiration has never changed."

Tang Shengjie, 34, and Jiang Xinlin, 35, are on their first flights into space. Both are members of China's third class of taikonauts chosen in 2020. Both are former fighter pilots.

"I feel that I am fully prepared physically, mentally and technically," said Tang Shengjie. "I am confident to complete this upcoming flight mission. In fact, to be honest, I can't wait to carry out the mission now."

Together with Tang Hongbo, Tang Shengjie and Jiang comprise China's youngest crew to date.

"The three of us should stay as one," said Jiang. "We have to be united. I believe with the support of all the Chinese people, as well as the scientific researches and the guidance of the commander, we will successfully accomplish all the missions."

Shenzhou-17 is the 30th mission of China's human space program, the 12th to fly with a crew and the ninth to include three taikonauts.


A Long March 2F rocket lifts off with the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft and taikonauts Tang Hongbo, Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Oct. 25, 2023. (CCTV)

Chinese taikonauts Jiang Xinlin (at left), Tang Hongbo (center) and Tang Shengjie launched aboard the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft to the Tiangong space station on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. (CMSA)

China's Shenzhou-17 mission patch as designed by Tan Haoyu, a graduate student at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. (CMSE)

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