China has launched a spacecraft carrying three astronauts to its under-construction space station in a historic mission.
The Shenzhou-12 manned spacecraft was launched into the orbit on Thursday, marking a giant leap in China's space prowess. The launch took place in the morning, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in Southwest China's Gansu Province.
First Time in 5 Years
The successful launch means that China's Tianhe space station core cabin module will now start receiving its first batch of astronauts, who will stay there for three months.
It is the first time in five years that China has sent astronauts into space.
The craft, named Shenzhou-12, or "Divine Vessel", was taken by a Long March 2F rocket. Shenzhou-12 is the third of 11 missions - four of which will be crewed - needed to complete China's first full-fledged space station. Construction began in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of three modules.
The astronauts who travelled on the craft are Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45. They will carry out tasks including repair and maintenance, appliance switch and scientific operation of payloads, the Global Times reported.
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During their sojourn on the cylinder-like Tianhe, slightly bigger than a city bus, the three men will test the module's technologies including its life-support system.
The men will also be monitored for how they fare in space physically and psychologically for an extended period of time. An upcoming mission to the space station will last six months.
"This will be the first crewed flight in the space station (construction) phase, and I'm lucky to be able to have the 'first baton'," Nie told reporters in Jiuquan a day before the launch.
The veteran astronaut has been hailed by his team as a bastion of stability and a teacher figure who constantly challenges others with tough questions.
"As long as we have him in our hearts, we have nothing to fear," fellow astronaut Wang Yaping, who is part of the Shenzhou-12 backup team, told state media previously.
"In our crew, elder brother Nie is like the needle that stills the sea," she said.
Since 2003, China has launched six crewed missions and sent 11 astronauts into space, including Zhai Zhigang, who carried out China's first space walk ever on the 2008 Shenzhou mission.