China to send three astronauts to space, including its oldest

China will send three men to space in its first crewed mission in nearly five years, including the country's oldest astronaut to go into space, part of an ambitious plan to complete a space station by the end of next year.

China is expected to launch the crewed spacecraft Shenzhou-12 at 9:22 am on Thursday in Jiuquan in northwestern Gansu province, an official at the China Manned Space agency said on Wednesday.

The astronauts are Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, Ji Qiming, assistant director at the China Manned Space Agency, told reporters.

Shenzhou-12, meaning "Divine Vessel", will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete China's space station by 2022.

China began construction of the space station this year with the launch of Tianhe - the first and largest of the station's three modules - in late April.

The Shenzhou-12 crew is to live on the Tianhe, which means "Harmony of the Heavens", a cylinder 16.6m long and 4.2m in diameter, for three months.

The mission will be led by Nie, a native of central Hubei province and a former air force pilot. He will be the oldest Chinese astronaut to go to space.

The Shenzhou-12 will be Nie's third space outing, after the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005 and the Shenzhou-10 mission in 2013.

It will be Liu's second mission to space and Tang's first.

The backup astronauts for the mission are Zhai Zhigang, 54, Wang Yaping, 41 and Ye Guangfu, 40.

China's last crewed flight mission was in 2016 when two men - Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng - were sent via the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to Tiangong-2, a prototype of the space station where they later stayed for about a month. 

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