China will send its first civilian astronaut into space as part of a crewed mission to the Tiangong space station on Tuesday, according to officials.
Gui Haichao, a payload expert, will take off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Tuesday at 9:31am local time (01:31 GMT), the China Manned Space Agency said on Monday.
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Until now, all Chinese astronauts sent into space have been members of the People’s Liberation Army.
A spokesman for the space agency told reporters that Gui, who is a professor at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, will “mainly be responsible for the on-orbit operation of space science experimental payloads”.
The commander of Tuesday’s mission is Jing Haipeng – on his fourth journey into space, according to state media – while the third crew member is engineer Zhu Yangzhu.
China, which plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2030, has invested billions of dollars into its military-run space programme, trying to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their milestones.
It completed the construction of its third and permanent space station, Tiangong, last year. The final module of the T-shaped Tiangong – whose name means “heavenly palace” – successfully docked with the core structure in November.
The station carries a number of pieces of cutting-edge science equipment, state news agency Xinhua reported, including “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system”.
Tiangong is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres (250 and 280 miles) above the planet for at least 10 years – realising an ambition to maintain a long-term human presence in space.
It will be constantly crewed by rotating teams of three astronauts, who will conduct scientific experiments and help test new technologies.
While China does not plan to use Tiangong for global cooperation on the scale of the International Space Station, Beijing said it is open to foreign collaboration.
It is not yet clear how extensive that cooperation will be.
China has been effectively excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country.