China to send second woman into space on longest mission yet: Officials

BEIJING (AFP) - China is to send its second woman astronaut into orbit on its longest mission yet, space officials said Monday, as the country works towards building a space station.

The Shenzhou-10 - the name means "Divine Vessel" - will be launched on a Long March rocket at 0938 GMT Tuesday, Wu Ping, spokeswoman for China's manned space programme, told a news conference.

Wang Yaping, the second woman China has sent into space, will be on board while the mission will be commanded by Nie Haisheng, with Zhang Xiaoguang the third crew member, she said, adding they will be in orbit for 15 days.

The craft will dock with the Tiangong-1 - "Heavenly Palace" - space laboratory, and the crew will transfer into it.

The mission will mark a crucial step towards China's goal of building a full space station capable of housing astronauts for extended periods.

"They will carry out aerospace medical experiments and space technology experiments," said Wu.

China first sent a human into space only in 2003 and its capabilities still lag behind the US and Russia, but it has a highly ambitious programme including plans to land a man on the moon and build a station orbiting earth by 2020.

The previous Shenzhou mission, in June last year, included China's first woman astronaut, Liu Yang, who became a national heroine. At 13 days, it was described at the time as the country's longest space mission yet.

Beijing sees the multi-billion-dollar space programme as a symbol of its rising global stature, growing technical expertise, and the ruling Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.

Officials have said it will land an exploratory craft on the moon for the first time this year.

At the same time the United States, long the leader in the field, has scaled back some of its programmes, such as retiring its space shuttle fleet.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.