Three astronauts successfully docked with China's new space station, state media said, on what is set to be Beijing s tallest astronaut mission to date and the latest milestone in its effort to become a major power.
The three kicked out on Saturday after midnight from the Jiuquan launch centre in Northwestern China s Gobi Desert, state-run Xinhua news agency earlier said, with the team expected to spend six months at the Tiangong space station.
After the launch, China declared Manned Space Agency it a success and said the crew members were in good shape according to Xinhua.
The Shenzhou 13 vessel carrying the three of the three then docked with the brief port of the space station hours later, Xinhua said in a short dispatch on Saturday morning.
The mission twice as long as its 90 - day predecessor will set up equipment and test technology for future construction at the Tiangong station.
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, a former fighter pilot who performed the country s first spacewalk in 2008, said the team would undertake more complex spacewalks than during previous missions.
The astronaut team includes commercial Pilot Wang Yaping, 41, who is the first woman to visit a China space station after becoming the second woman in space in 2013.
The other team member is People's Liberation Army pilot Ye Guangfu, 41.
The first space crew, who made a record-breaking mission to Tiangong returned to Earth in September after three months on the space station.
China s heavily supported space programme has already seen the nation land a robot to Mars and send probes to the moon.
Tiangong, meaning heavenly palace, is expected to operate for at least 10 years.
Its core module entered orbit earlier this year, with the station expected to be operational in 2022.
The completed station will be similar to the Soviet Mir station orbited Earth from 1980 s until 2001.
The long mission is set to check China s technical boundary and expand the Space Station System system capability for a longer duration of human occupation, Chen Lan told AFP.
I don t think it is very challenging, as Chen's technologies are quite mature, though anything in space is always challenging, Chen said.
The Chinese space agency is planning a total of 11 missions in Tiangong as part of the China Space Agency through next year, including at least two more crewed launches that will deliver two lab modules to expand the station's 70 - tons.
China s Space ambitions have been fuelled in part by a US ban on its astronauts at the International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.
The ISS is likely to retire after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially stay functional beyond 2028.
Chinese space authorities say they are open to foreign collaboration on the space station, although the scope of this cooperation is as yet unclear.
In May of this year, China became the second country in the world to land and operate a rover on Mars.
Astronauts on the Tiangong Space Station will have separate living spaces, exercise equipment and a communication center for emails and video calls with ground control.