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President Xi speaks to Chinese astronauts in space station; says mission an important ‘milestone’

President Xi Jinping on Wednesday spoke to the three astronauts stationed in China’s space station and told them that the project is an important “milestone” in the country’s ambitious space exploration programme.

China successfully launched its longest crewed space mission to date on June 17, sending three astronauts to its new orbiting station, in a major milestone for the Communist giant’s space exploration plans and establishing it as a leading space power.

Xi, also the General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party and the head of the People’s Liberation Army, spoke to astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo from the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre.

In his first direct contact with the astronauts telecast live by the state-run television channels, Xi thanked them for their work in space in a five-minute call reflecting the importance of the country’s space exploration project to the Chinese leadership.

“You are the first astronauts stationed in the core module Tianhe and will stay in space for three months,” Xi said during the video call. “We all care about you very much,” state-run Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.

“The construction of the space station is a milestone in China’s space industry, which will make pioneering contributions to the peaceful use of space by humanity,” he said.

“You are the representatives of those who are striving and climbing in China’s space industry in the new era. I hope you will work closely with each other and complete the upcoming tasks,” he said.

He expressed his hope that the three astronauts would work and live well in space. “We are waiting for your triumphant return to Beijing,” he said.

“You will spend three months in space and while in space, your work and your life will be in the hearts of the Chinese public,” Xi said.

Prior to the conversation, Xi watched both the operations of the in-orbit complex, including the core module and Shenzhou-12, and the astronauts’ work in orbit via a large screen in the centre’s command hall.

The screen showed Nie, Liu and Tang conducting in-orbit training with a robotic arm, and inspecting and setting the status of the extravehicular spacesuit in preparation for extravehicular activities (EVAs).

The robotic arm which can be stretched to 15 metres has raised concerns in the US for its possible military applications.

Astronauts will team up with the robotic arm to make in-orbit space station construction and maintenance possible.

China, in the past, has launched several scavenger satellites fitted with robotic arms to gather and steer space debris so that it burns up in Earth’s atmosphere.

The three astronauts saluted Xi and thanked the country for its support. All three are members of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) which is celebrating its centenary on July 1.

This will be China’s longest crewed space mission to date and the first in nearly five years.

China previously sent the space station’s Tianhe core cabin module on April 29, and a cargo spacecraft with supplies on May 29.

The three astronauts, who will build the station, are expected to set a new record for China’s manned space mission duration, exceeding the 33 days kept by the Shenzhou-11 crew in 2016.

The three astronauts were sent into space by the Shenzhou-12 spaceship on June 17 and docked with the core module Tianhe on the same day.

They will spend the next three months constructing the space station named Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) which will be rival to International Space Station (ISS), a collaborative project involving five participating space agencies – NASA (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada).

Tiangong was expected to be ready by next year.