China launched a manned spacecraft carrying three astronauts into low-Earth orbit on Thursday morning, aiming to reach and remain at an under-construction space station for three months, the longest stay in low-Earth orbit by any Chinese citizen.
It was China’s seventh crewed voyage to space, the first since the country’s last human mission in 2016, according to official media. It was also the first in nearly five years since the country’s previous manned trip in 2016.
At 9.22 a.m., a Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12, or “Divine Vessel,” blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwestern Gansu province, destined for the space station module Tianhe.
Shenzhou-12 is the third of 11 trips required to complete China’s first full-fledged space station, four of which will be crewed.
The launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of three modules, kicked off the construction of the space station in April. The station is scheduled to open in 2022.
The astronauts Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, will spend three months working and living on Tianhe, the future space station’s residential quarters.
Official news agency Xinhua said, “The three astronauts 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.”
Tianzhou-2 delivered more than 160 large and small cargo items in late May, according to the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), including human supplies and space-science equipment.
According to the China Manned Space Agency, the Tianzhou-3 cargo vessel and the Shenzhou-13 manned spaceship will be launched later this year to dock with Tianhe, and three other astronauts will then begin their six-month stay in orbit (CMSA).
“After the five launch missions this year, China plans to have six more missions, including the launch of the Wentian and Mengtian lab modules, two cargo spacecraft and two crewed spaceships, in 2022 to complete the construction of the space station,” the Xinhua report said.
China has launched six crewed flights and sent 11 astronauts into space since 2003, including Zhai Zhigang, who performed China’s first-ever spacewalk on the Shenzhou mission in 2008.
On May 30, a cargo ship carrying supplies like food and equipment docked with Tianhe, the primary module of China’s first space station, as part of the station’s preparations to host three astronauts this month.
Tianzhou-2 was launched and docked a month after Tianhe, the first segment of the space station Tiangong, which means “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese, was launched.
China launched Tianhe, the administration and control centre for Tiangong, the permanent space station, into space in late April as part of its ambitious space programme.
The Tianhe, which was launched into space by a rocket, has enough power to power three people for up to six months.
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