., a landmark step for Beijing to establish its dominance over space.
Three astronauts launched on a Long March-2F rocket for the Tiangong station, where they will spend three months. The event was broadcasted live on state television.
Lift-off happened at 9:22 am local time from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwest China’s Gobi desert, with the rocket rising in clouds of smoke against a blue sky.
After about 10 minutes it reached orbit and the space craft separated from the rocket, to loud applause in the control room among rows of blue-suited engineers.
State broadcaster CCTV showed a live feed from inside the spacecraft, with the three astronauts lifting their helmet visors and one smiling and waving at the camera.
Another floated a pen just off his lap in zero-gravity as he browsed the flight manual.
Cameras outside the craft broadcast live images of the Earth below.
“According to reports from the Beijing aerospace control centre, the Long March-2F rocket has sent the Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft to the present orbit,” said Zhang Zhifen, director of the Jiuquan satellite launch centre.
“The solar panels unfolded successfully and now we declare the Shenzhou-12 mission a complete success.”
The mission’s commander is Nie Haisheng, a decorated air force pilot in the People’s Liberation Army who has already participated in two space missions. The two other members are also members of the military.
Their spacecraft will dock with the Tianhe main section of the space station, which was placed in orbit on April 29.
The module has separate living spaces for each of them, a treadmill for exercise, and a communication centre for emails and video calls with ground control.
To prepare for the mission, the crew has undergone more than 6,000 hours of training, including hundreds of underwater somersaults in full space gear.
The Chinese space agency is planning a total of 11 launches through to the end of next year, including three more manned missions which will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-tonne station, and supplies and crew members.
The first crew will test and maintain the systems onboard, conduct spacewalks and undertake scientific experiments.
China’s space ambitions have been fuelled in part by a US ban on its astronauts on the International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.