China has launched the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft carrying three astronauts to its space station, where they will complete the country’s first-ever crew handover in orbit, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The trio blasted off on Tuesday in a Long March-2F rocket at 11:08pm (15:08 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwestern China’s Gobi desert, Xinhua said, citing the China Manned Space Administration (CMSA).
The team for the six-month mission is led by veteran Fei Junlong and two first-time astronauts Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, the agency said at a news conference on Monday.
Fei, 57, is returning to space after 17 years, having commanded the Shenzhou-6 mission in 2005.
His team will join three other astronauts on board the Tiangong space station, who arrived in early June.
Tiangong has room to accommodate six astronauts at a time and the handover will take about a week. Previous missions to the space station have taken about 13 hours from liftoff to docking.
Anu Ojha, director of the UK national space academy, said that the crew are currently catching up with the Tiangong space station.
“They’re doing a ‘fast rendezvous’, and what this means is they’ve got to catch up with the space station, they’ve got to dock with the space station,” Ojha told Al Jazeera.
“One of the reasons China has been so proud and so confident of this … is that this is a milestone,” he said.
“This is a new structure, new science laboratories, so new capacity to be able to conduct the sorts of research in biomedicine, in pharmaceuticals, in material science … without the effect of gravity,” Ojha added. “That gives us new insights into all of these sciences.”
“The … main responsibilities for the mission are … achieving the first crew handover in orbit, installing … equipment and facilities inside and outside the space station and carrying out scientific experiments,” Ji Qiming, a spokesman for CMSA said.
“During the stay, the Shenzhou-15 crew will welcome the visiting Tianzhou-6 cargo ship and hand over [operations to] the Shenzhou-16 manned spaceship, and are planning to return to China’s Dongfeng landing site in May next year.”
The Tiangong space station is a crown jewel in Beijing’s ambitious space programme – which has landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon, and made the country the third to put humans in orbit – as it looks to catch up with major spacefaring powers the United States and Russia.
Tiangong’s final module successfully docked with the core structure earlier this month, state media said, a key step in its completion by year’s end.
“I expect that China will declare construction completion during or at end of the Shenzhou-15 mission,” independent Chinese space analyst Chen Lan said.
China has been excluded from the International Space Station (ISS) since 2011, when the United States banned NASA from engaging with the country.
Once completed, the Tiangong space station is expected to have a mass of 90 tonnes – about a quarter of the ISS – or similar in size to the Soviet-built Mir station that orbited Earth from the 1980s until 2001.
Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace”, will operate for approximately a decade and host a variety of experiments in near-zero gravity.
Next year, Beijing plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope with a field of view 350 times that of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.