China's next manned mission, the Shenzhou XVI, is scheduled to be launched within this month to transport three astronauts to the Tiangong space station, according to plans made by the China Manned Space Agency.
It will become the first crewed mission to the Tiangong station after its completion, which was done through the Shenzhou XIV and XV flights.
The Shenzhou XVI crew members, whose names have yet to be disclosed, will take over the massive orbital outpost from their peers in the Shenzhou XV, mission commander Major General Fei Junlong, Senior Colonel Deng Qingming and Senior Colonel Zhang Lu, who arrived on Nov 30. By the end of May, Fei's team will have stayed in orbit for six months.
Pang Zhihao, an expert on space exploration technology and a renowned writer on spaceflight, guessed that the Shenzhou XVI crew would include new faces — the country's third-generation astronauts.
By now, all of the Chinese astronauts who have been on spaceflights are members of the People's Liberation Army. They are in the first two generations of astronauts who were selected from experienced Air Force aviators.
The third generation of astronauts have civilians recruited from researchers and engineers. There are 17 men and one woman in this generation in three groups: seven spacecraft pilots, another seven as spaceflight engineers and the last four as payload specialists.
Yang Liwei, the first Chinese person in space and now a deputy chief planner of the country's manned spaceflights, said before that the third-generation astronauts are expected to be in space in the year 2023.
Currently, the Shenzhou XVI crew spacecraft and its carrier, a Long March 2F rocket, are undergoing prelaunch checks at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China's Gobi Desert.
Earlier this month, the Tianzhou 6 robitic cargo spaceship set out from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province to transport materials for the next manned missions, becoming the first spacecraft to visit the Tiangong space station this year.
Orbiting about 400 kilometers above the ground, the Tiangong currently consists of three major components, the Tianhe core module and Wentian and Mengtian science lab modules － and is connected with two visiting craft, the Shenzhou XV crew ship and the Tianzhou 6 cargo ship.