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Shenzhou-13: Chinese astronauts dock on Tiangong space station for six months mission

Three Chinese astronauts successfully docked with China’s new space station, state media said, on what is set to be Beijing’s longest crewed mission to date and the latest landmark in its drive to become a major space power.

The three blasted off shortly after midnight on Saturday from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwestern China’s Gobi desert. The team is expected to spend six months at the Tiangong space station.

After the launch, the China Manned Space Agency declared it a success and said the crew members “were in good shape”, according to Xinhua.

The Shenzhou-13 vessel carrying the three then docked hours later with the radial port of the space station, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

The mission will set up equipment and test technology for future construction on 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 military pilot Wang Yaping, 41, who is the first woman to visit the space station after becoming China’s second woman in space in 2013.

The other team member is People’s Liberation Army pilot Ye Guangfu, 41.

Astronauts on the Tiangong space station will have separate living spaces, exercise equipment and a communication centre for emails and video calls with ground control.

A previous space crew making the first mission to Tiangong returned to Earth in September after three months on the space station.

The Chinese space agency is planning a total of 11 missions to Tiangong through to the end of next year, including at least two more crewed launches that will deliver two lab modules to expand the 70-tonne station.

China’s space ambitions have been fuelled in part by a US ban on the International Space Station, which is a collaboration of the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

The ISS is due for retirement after 2024, although NASA has said it could potentially remain functional beyond 2028.

Chinese space authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration on the space station, although the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.

The country has come a long way since launching its first satellite in 1970.