Shenzhou-17 launch: China has sent its youngest-ever astronaut crew to the Tiangong space station | Space

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Gobi Desert, China

When China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei blasted off into space in 2003, it was a history making moment that declared his country’s arrival as an emerging space power.

Two decades on, China has become a major presence in space – a status that mirrors its growing economic, political and military ascendency on Earth. It now has its own permanent outpost in orbit – a fully operational space station – and routinely rotates crews to live and work there.

On Thursday, three Chinese astronauts lifted off on the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center deep in the Gobi Desert, heading for the Tiangong space station for a six-month stay.

They are the youngest crew China has ever sent to space – with an average age of 38. Among their tasks on board is to repair the solar panels that were damaged by space debris – the first time Chinese astronauts will carry out repair work outside the station.

This is China’s sixth manned mission to its space station since 2021. The new crew will take over from the Shenzhou-16 astronauts, who have been onboard since May.

Before the launch, the crew was sent off in full pageantry, greeted by government officials and supporters lining the road. The three astronauts waved at the crowd, who held up Chinese flags and flowers. A band played patriotic songs and the crowd sang along.

Since his own trip to space, Yang has sent off many Chinese astronauts on their missions. But Thursday’s launch was especially emotional, coming just days after the 20th anniversary of his own historic flight.

“Looking at this launch as a veteran, the first thing I see is how far China’s manned spaceflight has come. Over the past 20 years, it has developed rapidly and made great achievements,” Yang told CNN at the Jiuquan center on…

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