China’s newest crewed space mission is set to launch on Saturday morning.
Officials confirmed Thursday that China will deploy three astronauts to its new space station this week, in what will be the country’s longest crewed trip to date.
At a press conference on Thursday, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced that the three will launch at 12:23 a.m. on Saturday from the launch center in northwest China’s Gobi desert.
They’ll stay in Tianhe, the Tiangong space station’s core module, for six months.
Their mission, which will last twice as long as its predecessor, aims to test “key technologies” for building Tiangong, according to CMSA deputy director Lin Xiqiang.
According to Lin, the mission will include “two to three” spacewalks to install components for future building work.
Commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter pilot who undertook the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut in 2008, is one of the three “taikonauts” (as China refers to its astronauts).
The astronauts will face “more challenging” spacewalks than in past missions, as well as the added physical and emotional strain of living in space for a longer period of time, according to Zhai.
At a second press conference on Thursday, he added that the crew “had the confidence and skill” to achieve their goals and “live up to the immense faith placed in us by the motherland and the people.”
Wang Yaping, 41, will become the country’s first female astronaut when she visits the space station.
In 2013, she became China’s second female astronaut.
Former PLA pilot Ye Guangfu, 41, is the other team member.
The trio previously served as backup crew members for the successful Shenzhou-12 mission, which ended last month with the astronauts safely returning to Earth in a landing capsule.
The astronauts spent three months aboard the Tiangong station, which included separate living modules for each of them, as well as a shared restroom, dining space, and a communication center where they could send emails and make video calls to ground control.
According to Chinese official media, the Long March-2F rocket that will take the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft into space was transported to the launch pad last Thursday.
Lin said it is already loading up on propellant in preparation for Saturday’s launch.
China’s well-publicized space program has already resulted in the landing of a rover on Mars and the sending of probes to the moon.
A prohibition on Chinese astronauts on the International Space Station fueled Beijing’s desire for its own manned station in Earth’s orbit.