BEIJING — Three Chinese astronauts docked with their country's space station early Wednesday, where they will overlap with the three-member crew already onboard and expand the facility to its maximum size.
The station of Tiangong was docking at 5: 42 a.m. Wednesday night, 4: 42 p.m. Tuesday ET, about 2 hours after the Shenzhou 15 spaceship blasted off a Long March 2 F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Tuesday night.
The six-month mission, commanded by Fei Junlong and crewed by Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will be the last in the station's construction phase, according to the China Manned Space Agency. One of the last steps in China's effort to maintain a constant crew presence in orbit was docked with the station a month ago.
The crew of the Shenzhou 15 will spend several days working with the existing 3-member crew of the Tiangong station, who will return to Earth after their six-month mission.
Fei, 57, is a veteran of the four-day mission of Shenzhou 6 in 2005, the second time China sent a human into space. Deng and Zhang are making their first space flights.
The station is now expanded to its maximum size with three modules and three spacecraft attached for a total mass of nearly 100 tons.
The handover takes about a week and Tiangong can accommodate six astronauts at a time. That marks the station's first in-orbit crew rotation.
China has not yet said what more work is needed to complete the station. It plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope next year, which will orbit with the station and can dock occasionally with it for maintenance, though it will not be part of Tiangong.
The Chinese station weighs about 66 tons without the attached spacecraft, a fraction of the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs around 465 tons.
Tiangong could be the only space station still up and running if the International Space Station retires in the coming years as planned, with a lifespan of 10 to 15 years.
While China's crewed space program is officially three decades old this year, it really got underway in 2003, when China became only the third country after the U.S. and Russia to put a human into space using its own resources.
The program is run by the People's Liberation Army, the Communist Party's military wing, and has proceeded almost entirely without outside support. The U.S. excluded China from the International Space Station because of its military ties, although China has engaged in limited cooperation with other nations space agencies.
China has also chalked up uncrewed mission successes: its Yutu 2 rover was the first to explore the little-known far side of the moon.
In December 2020, China's Chang e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s, and another Chinese rover is looking for evidence of life on Mars.
NASA is attempting to send four astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land humans there as early as 2025, and officials are considering an eventual crewed mission to the moon, although no timeline has been offered.
China's space program has also drawn controversy, which is a fact that the program has been running smoothly for the most part. Beijing brushed off its complaints that it allowed rocket stages to fall uncontrolled to Earth after NASA accused it of failing to meet the responsible standards regarding space debris. In that case, parts of a Chinese rocket landed in the Indian Ocean.
China is reportedly developing a highly secret space plane and its increasing space capabilities as part of the latest Pentagon defense strategy, which said the program was a part of China's holistic approach to joint warfare.