China is preparing astronauts for long-term missions so that they can “carry out manned explorations of deep space in the future”, an official said.

A five-year programme to ready Chinese astronauts for long-term missions in space has been approved and will begin later this year, Director of the Astronaut Centre of China Chen Shanguang said on Monday.

Mr. Chen told the China Daily that the programme aims to establish astronauts’ operational and decision-making abilities in space, along with any psychological and physical changes they undergo living in cramped compartments in weightless conditions.

The longest period that Chinese astronauts have remained in space so far was 115.5 hours, or nearly five days, during the mission of Shenzhou VI in 2005.

“China will build a space station in 10 years and will probably carry out manned explorations of deep space in the future,” Mr. Chen was quoted as saying.

He said that the challenge is to find out how to enable astronauts to remain healthy and work efficiently over long periods in space and added the findings will play a significant role in preparing the selection criteria to recruit future astronauts.

“Space missions are becoming more difficult, making greater demands on astronauts. We want to find scientific answers to questions like what type of people can work as astronauts on long missions and what capabilities they should have,” he said.

The research will also be used to decide suitable workload for astronauts on long missions and drawing up training programme based on the results.

According to the official website of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, China plans to launch two space laboratories before 2016 to study the key technologies involved in building a space station, with a view to constructing a space station for astronauts to serve on board over an extended period around 2020.

Wang Yue, a Chinese volunteer, is currently participating in the Russian “Mars 500” project that is designed to test the long-term effects of isolation on the crew during a simulated trip to the planet.

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