China has sent three astronauts on a six-month-long mission to complete work on its permanent orbiting space station, the China Manned Space Agency said on Sunday.
The Shenzhou-14 crew will spend six months on the Tiangong station, during which it will oversee the addition of two laboratory modules to join the main Tianhe living space that was launched in April 2021.
A Long March-2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in northwest China at 10:44am (02:44 GMT) with the spacecraft Shenzhou-14, or “Divine Vessel”, and its three astronauts, a live broadcast by state television showed.
The mission is headed by commander Chen Dong, 43, joined by fellow astronauts Liu Yang, 43, and Cai Xuzhe, 46. They will live and work on the space station for about 180 days before returning to Earth in December.
The space station, when completed by the year-end, will lay a significant milestone in China’s three-decade-long crewed space programme, first approved in 1992.
The completion of the structure, about a fifth of the International Space Station (ISS) by mass, is a source of pride among common Chinese people, and caps President Xi Jinping’s 10 years as leader of the ruling Communist Party.
“The Shenzhou-14 mission is a pivotal battle in the construction stage of China’s space station,” Chen told a news conference in Jiuquan on Saturday. “The task will be tougher, there will be more problems and the challenges will be greater.”
The 43-year-old said the arrival of the new modules will “provide more stability, more powerful functions, more complete equipment”.
Liu, 43, is also a space veteran and was China’s first female astronaut to reach space on board the Shenzhou-9 in 2012. Cai, 46, is making his first space trip.
They will also install equipment inside and outside the space station and carry out a range of scientific research.
China’s space programme launched its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, making it only the third country to do so on its own after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
It has landed robot rovers on the moon and placed one on Mars last year. China has also returned lunar samples and officials have discussed a possible crewed mission to the moon.
China’s space programme is run by the Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, prompting the US to exclude it from the ISS.
Chen, Liu and Cai will be joined at the end of their mission for three to five days by the crew of the upcoming Shenzhou-15, marking the first time the station will have had six people on board.
The space station is designed for a lifespan of at least 10 years.