China launched a spacecraft on Thursday carrying three astronauts to part of a space station still under construction for the longest stay in low Earth orbit by any Chinese national.
Thursday’s launch begins the first crewed space mission in five years for an increasingly ambitious space program. China has sent 11 astronauts into space since becoming the third country to so so on its own in 2003, and has sent orbiters and rovers to the moon and Mars.
The astronauts will be traveling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket set to blast off at 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China.
While the first Tianhe crew are all men, women will be part of future crews, officials have said.
Beijing doesn’t participate in the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. concerns over the Chinese space program’s secrecy and its military connections.
The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. The main living section of the station was launched in April while the other two modules will be primarily for scientific work.
The mission builds on experience China gained from earlier operating two experimental space stations. It also landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon and brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space program since the 1970s. Once completed, the station will allow for stays of up to six months, similar to the much larger International Space Station.
All astronauts will have their own living area, and a stationary bike and other exercise equipment will allow them to counter some of the effects of weightlessness. They’ll also be able to bring personal items to remind them of home and stave off boredom while not working.
The Chinese station reportedly is intended to be used for 15 years and may outlast the International Space Station, which is nearing the end of its functional lifespan.
The launch of Tianhe was considered a success although China was criticized for allowing the uncontrolled reentry to Earth of part of the rocket that carried it into space. Usually, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, normally over water, and don’t go into orbit.