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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
China space launch confirmed
China has confirmed that it will launch its first manned space mission between 15 and 17 October, the official Xinhua news agency reports.

Newspaper on sale in Beijing, 8 October
Speculation about the launch has been mounting in China's media
The Shenzhou 5 spacecraft will orbit the Earth 14 times before landing at a "pre-selected area", an unnamed space official told the agency.

China is aiming to become the third nation after the former Soviet Union and the United States to send humans into space.

But until now the anticipated launch has been shrouded in secrecy.

"The Shenzhou 5 spacecraft will carry out the first manned space mission and will lift off from the China Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre," the official told Xinhua.

"Now all preparatory work for the launch is progressing smoothly," he said.

Analysts had long speculated that 15 October would be a likely launch date, coming a day after a key Communist Party meeting in Beijing.

The launch promises to be drenched in patriotism, and there has been speculation that senior party officials will be present when the spacecraft takes off.

Weapons onboard

None of the would-be astronauts, known in Chinese as "yuhangyuan", have yet been named.

But the state-run China Daily newspaper said on Friday that three candidates had now been short-listed, out of which one would actually go into space.

A report in the Jiefang Daily said the spacecraft was likely to be launched during the daytime and carried by a Long March-II F rocket.

The popular sina.com website reported that handguns, knives and other "defensive weapons" would be stored in the capsule.

On landing, the astronaut "will be able to deal with wild beasts, sharks and other dangerous animals or enemies", the website reported.

The Chinese Government emphasised on Friday that the space mission was a purely peaceful exercise.

"China has never and will never participate in an arms race of any form in outer space," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.

The three short-listed spacemen have been chosen from 14 candidates, all of whom are experienced fighter pilots, according to the China Daily.

Media reports say that all the candidates are 1.70 metres tall and weigh 65 kilograms, and have received six years of special training.

All of them have passed "a comprehensive drill," Xinhua said.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Tory Milne reports
"The government's secrecy has done little to dull the public's interest"



SEE ALSO:
Country profile: China
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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