China sent three astronauts to its Tiangong space station on Tuesday, the first time a civilian has been sent into orbit as it plans to send a crewed mission to the Moon by the 2030s.
The world’s second-largest economy has pumped billions of dollars into its military-run space program to catch up to the United States and Russia.
AFP reporters watched as the Shenzhou-16 crew lifted off on a Long March 2F rocket at 9:31 a.m. (0131 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.
They stopped at the Tianhe core module of the space station on Tuesday afternoon, more than six hours after liftoff, state broadcaster CCTV said.
Zou Lipeng, director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, said the launch was a “complete success” and that “the astronauts are in good condition”.
Dozens of space program employees, many of whom live at the massive site year-round, attended the launch, taking selfies with the rocket in the background.
Children played while waiting for the launch, some waving Chinese flags and sitting on their parents’ shoulders.
Spectators loudly shouted “Wow”, “Good luck” and waved as the rocket took off in a cloud of ocher smoke.
Its crew is led by Commander Jing Haipeng on its fourth mission, as well as engineer Zhu Yangzhu and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao, the first Chinese citizens in space.
China was the third country to send humans into orbit, and Tiangong is the crown jewel of its space program, which has also landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon.
Officials said Shenzhou-16 is the first mission for Tiangong as it has entered its “application and development” phase.
The crew will meet three of their colleagues from the Shenzhou-15 flight, who have been on the station for six months and who will return to Earth in the coming days.
Lin Shiqiang, a spokesman for the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), told reporters that the Shenzhou-16 crew will conduct several experiments during the mission, including a “high-precision space time-frequency system”, general relativity and the origin of life. on Monday.
The space station was re-supplied with drinking water, clothing, food and propellant this month in preparation for the arrival of Shenzhou-16.
An expert told AFP that Tuesday’s mission represented “a routine crew rotation flight”, but that it was also important.
“Accumulating a depth of experience in human space flight operations is important and it doesn’t have to involve new spectacular milestones all the time,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
– ‘Heavenly Palace’ –
China’s “space dream” has been put into overdrive under President Xi Jinping, and plans to build a lunar base have been drawn up.
“The overall goal is to achieve China’s first crewed landing on the Moon by 2030, and conduct lunar scientific exploration and related technical experiments,” CMSA’s Lin said.
Tiangong’s final module — meaning “heavenly palace” — successfully docked with the main structure last year.
State news agency Xinhua reported that the station houses several pieces of state-of-the-art scientific equipment, including “the world’s first space-based cold atomic clock system”.
Tiangong is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at an altitude between 400 and 450 kilometers (250 and 280 mi) for at least 10 years.
It is created by rotating teams of three consecutive astronauts.
China has been effectively excluded from the International Space Station since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country – prompting Beijing to develop its own orbital outpost.
China’s space agency reiterated on Monday that it is actively seeking international cooperation in the project.
According to CMSA, China plans to send two crewed space missions to Tiangong every year.
Next will be Shenzhou-17, which is expected to launch in October.
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