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China to send first astronauts to new space station on longest crewed mission to date

Hong Kong (CNN)A rocket carrying three veteran astronauts bound for China's orbiting space station module will launch from the Gobi Desert in the country's north in just over 24 hours, China's space agency announced Wednesday.

The three men, Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, will become the first Chinese astronauts to land on the initial stages of the space station, called Tiangong or Heavenly Palace, which is still under construction in a low Earth orbit.

China's Manned Space Engineering Office made the announcement at a news conference on Wednesday, saying the launch would take place at 9:22 a.m. Beijing time (9:22 p.m. ET) Thursday from Jiuquan Space Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.

The mission, called Shenzhou-12 or Divine Vessel, is the first of four planned Tiangong missions, according to state media, and marks a significant milestone in China's rapidly expanding space program. In the past seven months, the country's scientists have already successfully landed exploratory rovers on the moon in December and on Mars in May.

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