Three astronauts arrive at the Chinese space station

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Three Chinese astronauts arrived on Sunday at the “Heavenly Palace”, the space station that Beijing is building in orbit, in a “new stage” in China’s space conquest.

The Shenzhou-14 spacecraft was propelled by a Long March 2F rocket, which blasted off at 10:44 a.m. local time (0244 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwest China’s Gobi desert.

A quarter of an hour later, an official from the space agency in charge of manned space flights (CMSA) announced the “success” of the launch.

After about “seven hours of flight”, the spacecraft docked with the space station, CCTV explained.

The three astronauts, including a woman, take over from the Shenzhou-13 mission crew, which returned to Earth in mid-April after spending a semester on the space station.

Named Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), also known by its acronym CSS (for Chinese space station in English), the facility should be fully operational by the end of the year.

The main challenge for the Shenzhou-14 crew will be receiving and installing two lab modules, which are to be docked with the station and should be shipped in July and October.

Once these last two modules are installed, the Tiangong station will have a definitive T-shape and will be considerably wider, with a size similar to that of the former Russian-Soviet Mir station. Its life must be at least 10 years.

Shenzhou-14’s crew includes 43-year-old Liu Yang, who was the first Chinese woman in space (2012). Her teammates are Chen Dong (43), mission commander, and Cai Xuzhe (46), who is making her first flight into space after 12 years of preparation.

Towards the end of their stay, before returning to Earth, the three Shenzhou-14 astronauts will spend a few days with their three companions from the future Shenzhou-15 mission.

A novelty of this mission is that, for the first time, two Chinese crews will pass the baton in orbit at the station.

“With Shenzhou-14, Chinese manned space flights are entering a new stage” with “the start of permanent occupation of the station,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the United States, told AFP.

“In other words, from now on, the goal is to have Chinese astronauts in space all the time.”

The Shenzhou-14 crew will also carry out spacewalks, as well as a series of experiments and Tiangong maintenance.

China has been pushed to build its own station due to its exclusion from the International Space Station (ISS), as the United States prohibits NASA from working with Beijing.

The Asian giant has spent several decades investing billions of euros in its space program.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. Since then, it has made some remarkable achievements, especially in recent years.

In the longer term, China plans to offer space tourism, Zhou Jianping, head of China’s manned space program, said in March.

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