(AP) — A Chinese spaceship carrying a three-person crew docked with China's new space station on Thursday, beginning a three-month mission that will mark a watershed moment in the country's ambitious space program.
Six hours after taking off from the Jiuquan launch center on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, the Shenzhou-12 craft docked with the Tianhe space station module.
The three astronauts
will be the first to live in the main living module, conducting experiments, testing equipment, performing maintenance, and preparing the station for the arrival of two laboratory modules next year.
With this mission, China has launched 14 astronauts into space since 2003, making it only the third country, after the former Soviet Union and the United States
, to do so on its own.
Space officials, other uniformed military
personnel, and a crowd of children
waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs greeted the astronauts as they took off.
released its boosters about two minutes into the flight, followed by the cowling that surrounded Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket, which separated from the rocket's upper section after about 10 minutes, extended its solar panels, and entered orbit shortly after.
Over the next six hours, about a half-dozen adjustments were made to align the spaceship with the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, module, which docked at around 4 p.m. (0800 GMT).
The mission's deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told state broadcaster CCTV that the mission's travel
time has been reduced from the two days it took to reach China's previous experimental space stations as a result of "many breakthroughs and innovations."
“This allows the astronauts to get some rest in space, which should help them feel less tired,” Gao explained.
Other enhancements include a greater number of automated and remote-controlled systems, which will “significantly reduce the pressure on the astronauts,” according to Gao.
Two of the previous missions' astronauts were women
, and while the first station crew is entirely male, women are expected to join future station crews.
The mission is the third of 11 planned for the rest of the year to add additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies, with a new three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies arriving in three months.
China is not a participant in the International Space Station
, owing to U.S. objections to the Chinese program's secrecy and close military ties. However, China has increased cooperation with Russia
and a number of other countries, and its station may continue to operate after the International Space Station, which is nearing the end of its functional life.
China landed a probe carrying a rover, the Zhurong, on Mars
last month, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon's less explored far side, returning the first lunar samples returned by any country's space program since the 1970s.
This week, China and Russia also unveiled an ambitious plan for a joint International Lunar Research
Station that would run through 2036, potentially competing with the multinational Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space cooperation that supports NASA
's plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 and launch a historic human mission to Mars.
After the Tianhe was launched in April
, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled reentry to Earth, despite China dismissing criticism of the potential safety hazard. Typically, discarded rocket stages reenter the atmosphere shortly after liftoff, usually over water, and do not go into orbit.
According to Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency, the rocket used Thursday is of a different type, and the components that will reenter are expected to burn up long before they pose