China has successfully launched its first crewed mission in five years as the nation continues with the expansion of its ambitious space program.
A Long March-2F rocket carrying three astronauts blasted off from a launch site in the Gobi desert in the northwest of the country shortly after 9:20 a.m. local time on Thursday, 17 June (9:20 p.m. ET, Wednesday).
Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo are now on their way to China’s under-construction space station on the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft.
After reaching the space station in the coming hours, the astronauts will begin a three-month stay aboard its core Tianhe module that reached Earth orbit in April.
Their mission will involve preparing for the arrival of additional modules and integrating them into the main Tianhe section. This means the trio will have to perform numerous spacewalks during their time on board the station.
The plan is to finish building the space station by the end of 2022 and then use it to carry out science experiments in microgravity conditions.
China’s new space station is orbiting Earth at an altitude of about 230 miles, around 20 miles lower than the International Space Station.
The launch is part of broader efforts by China to become a major force in the field of space exploration alongside the U.S. Recent successful missions operated by the China National Space Administration have included putting a rover on Mars and the return of moon rocks from the lunar surface. It is also collaborating with Russia on plans to conduct further exploration of the moon, with plans that include the construction of a lunar space station.