China has launched a spacecraft taking three new astronauts, including the country’s first civilian, to its space station.
The Shenzhou-16 spacecraft lifted off from the Jiuquan launch centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northwestern China on a Long March 2F rocket at 9:31am local time (01:31 GMT) on Tuesday.
The launch was a “complete success” and the “astronauts are in good condition”, said Zou Lipeng, the centre’s director.
The crew will overlap briefly with the three astronauts currently on board the Tiangong station, who will then return to Earth after completing their six-month mission.
Dozens of employees from the space programme, many of whom live at the complex, turned out for the launch, snapping selfies with the rocket in the background, and waving Chinese flags.
They let out a loud “Wow”, shouting “Good luck” and waving as the rocket took off in a cloud of smoke.
Leading the crew is commander Jing Haipeng, who is on his fourth mission. Also on board are engineer Zhu Yangzhu and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao, the first Chinese civilian in space.
The crew will stay aboard the Tiangong for around five months, during which they will conduct scientific experiments, including in “high-precision space time-frequency systems”, general relativity, and into the origin of life, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).
The permanent space station, comprising three modules, was completed at the end of last year after a total of 11 crewed and uncrewed missions since April 2021.
China, which plans to launch a crewed mission to the moon before 2030, wants to expand the space outpost, with the next module slated to dock with the current T-shaped space station to create a cross-shaped structure.
China built the space station after it was excluded from the International Space Station in 2011, largely due to concerns from the United States over the Chinese space programme’s ties with the People’s Liberation Army.
The CMSA reiterated on Monday it is actively seeking international cooperation in the Tiangong project.
China plans to send two crewed space missions to Tiangong every year, according to the CMSA.
The next will be Shenzhou-17, with an expected launch in October.
Source: Al Jazeera