China has launched the first astronauts to its new space station

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The Shenzhou-12 launched with three astronauts onboard

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China has launched the first astronauts to its new space station. The three astronauts blasted off inside a Shenzhou spacecraft atop a Long March 2F rocket from northwest China at 0122 GMT on the 17 June, in the country’s first crewed mission since 2016. They are scheduled to stay there for three months, making it China’s longest crewed mission yet.

The first module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) launched in April, marking the beginning of a massive construction project in orbit. The Tianhe module will be the heart of the station, with living quarters for up to three astronauts, along with the station’s control centre, power, propulsion and life-support systems.

This 18-metre-long spacecraft will eventually be joined by two other main modules with space for science experiments. The finished space station will be about one fourth the size of the International Space Station (ISS). In 2021 and 2022, China has planned 11 missions to finish building and stocking the CSS – a cargo spacecraft has already docked with Tianhe with supplies for the astronauts about to head into orbit.

The CSS is China’s third and largest space station. The previous one, called Tiangong-2, fell from orbit in 2019. During its time in orbit, it was visited by a pair of astronauts once for 30 days. During their mission, they have two planned spacewalks to install equipment on the outside of the spacecraft.

China’s previous space stations have lasted only a few years each, but the CSS is intended to be a more permanent fixture in orbit, operating for at least 10 years. Chinese astronauts are not allowed to visit the ISS because of US legal restrictions. This will give them the capability to perform the same sorts of scientific experiments in orbit as ISS member states do, often focusing on how the space environment affects living organisms, development of new materials and basic physics.

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