China has launched the first three crew members on a mission to its new space station in its first crewed mission in five years.
The astronauts, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by the commander of China’s manned space program, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs.
The three gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags as the entered the elevator to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch centre in north-western China.
The astronauts are travelling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off shortly after 9.22am (11.22am Australian time) on Thursday on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming are heading to the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station for a three-month stay in its main living compartment. They will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two additional modules next year.
The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket’s upper section and extended its solar panels.
After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism. Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after liftoff, usually over water, and do not go into orbit.
The mission brings to 14 the number of Chinese astronauts travelling into space since China launched its first crewed mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the US to do so on its own.
The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months.
China is not a participant in the International Space Station, largely because of US objections to the Chinese program’s secrecy and close military ties. However, China has been stepping up co-operation with Russia and other countries, and its station may remain in space beyond the ISS, which is reaching the end of its functional life.
The mission builds on experience China gained from operating two experimental space stations. It also landed a probe on Mars in May that carried a rover, 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.