THREE Chinese astronauts are due to take off for a 10-day mission to a space station, making China only the third nation with a permanent base orbiting Earth.
Their Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will dock with the bus-sized prototype Tiangong 1 space module orbiting 200 miles above the Earth.
Two of the astronauts will live and work inside it to test its life-support systems while the third will remain in the capsule to deal with unexpected emergencies. Tiangong 1, or Heavenly Palace, is only a prototype, and the plan is to eventually replace it with a permanent – and bigger – space station due for completion around 2020.
The three astronauts include Liu Yang, a 34-year-old mother of one who flies transport planes for the air force. The selection of the first female astronaut is giving the program an additional publicity boost.