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China’s Youngest-Ever “Taikonauts” Leave For Space Station

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A new generation of “taikonauts” will carry on China’s space goals as the youngest-ever team of astronauts left for the country’s space station on Thursday.

Launched atop a Long March-2F rocket, the spacecraft Shenzhou-17, also known as the “Divine Vessel,” together with its three passengers took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China.

Tang Hongbo, a 48-year-old former air force pilot who flew on the first crewed mission to the space station in 2021, led the six-month expedition.

He also established a new record for the shortest time between two spaceflight trips by taikonauts, a term derived from the Chinese word for space, this suggests that the number of taikonauts will rotate more quickly in the years to come, upon his return to the orbiting base Tiangong, or “Celestial Palace” in Chinese.

Tang, who was selected for his first space mission in 2010, had to wait more than ten years after being selected for China’s second astronaut class in 2021.

On the other hand, Jiang Xinlin,35, and Tang Shengjie,33, who are both members of the Shenzhou-17 crew and are also going into space for the first time, joined China’s third class of astronauts in September 2020.

China has already begun the selection process for the fourth group of astronauts, looking for applicants with PhD degrees in fields including astronomy, biomedical engineering, physics, and biology.

Additionally, it is allowing candidates from Macau and Hong Kong to apply for the first time.

For international astronauts hoping to take part in cooperative missions to Tiangong, the selection and training procedure will start shortly, a top official on China’s manned space programme announced this year.

Even while China is making a big effort to internationalise its space missions, at least with Tiangong, its space programme remains distinctly Chinese.

Chinese language proficiency is a crucial need for international participants on Tiangong, as there is no English spoken there, unlike the NASA-run International Space Station (ISS).

After being excluded from the International Space Station programme for many years, Tiangong has come to represent China’s increasing confidence in its space ambitions. US law prohibits China from working directly or indirectly with NASA.

The Shenzhou-16 crew, who landed in Tiangong at the end of May, will be replaced by the astronauts from Shenzhou-17.

Since Yang Liwei’s solo spaceflight in October 2003—the first Chinese national in space—China has flown twelve crewed missions, the most recent of which is Shenzhou-17.

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