On Thursday, China successfully launched three of its astronauts into space to dock with the core module of China’s own new space station, called Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace.”
The launch of the three Chinese astronauts comes after China launched its core Tiangong module in April. Tiangong is China’s equivalent to the International Space Station (ISS), formed under a partnership between the U.S., E.U. and Russia. CNN reported the Chinese space station is still under construction in low-earth orbit
The three Chinese astronauts, aboard a Shenzhou-12 or “Divine Vessel” spacecraft, was launched on a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s northwest Gobi Desert.
The latest rocket launch is also China’s first manned space mission in nearly five years.
The BBC reported the Chinese rocket docked with the Tiangong space station about seven hours after it launched.
The Chinese crew will now spend the next three months aboard the Tiangong assembling the space station’s systems, including its life support features, and testing its maintenance procedures.
China plans to send another two laboratory modules, to be assembled to the space station by three additional crewed spacecraft. China’s goal is to complete the Tiangong’s construction by the end of 2022.
The Chinese astronaut crew is led by Nie Haisheng, who is the oldest member of the team and a former fighter pilot for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Nie was almost selected to be the first Chinese astronaut in space, but Yang Liwei ultimately took that honor.
The mission is also crewed by Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo.
Nie completed prior space missions in 2005 and 2013. Liu participated in a 2008 manned mission, in which he helped fellow astronaut Zhai Zhigang become the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. Tang is the only member of the current crew who has yet to travel to space.
China’s state-run Global Times reported all three astronauts are members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and that the mission was timed ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding on July 1.
The progress on China’s space station comes as the ISS is approaching the end of its lifespan and is set to be decommissioned in 2024. The first parts of the ISS were launched into orbit in 1998.
China’s Tiangong, by comparison, is expected to stay in orbit for about 15 years.
While both of China’s Tiangong missions have successfully reached orbit, the booster rocket for the first mission fell back down to earth near the Arabian Peninsula in May, causing concerns that it could have crashed near a populated area.
NASA Administrator and former Florida Senator Bill Nelson criticized China’s handling of its space debris in May. Nelson said, “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations. It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”
China defended its handling of the space launch and pointed to a failed March Space X launch, in which debris fell back to Earth over the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
“We are willing to work with other countries including the United States to strengthen cooperation in the use of outer space, but we also oppose double standards on this issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in May.