China launches first astronauts on mission to new space station.

China launched the first three astronauts on a mission to its new space station on Thursday in its first crewed venture in five years.

The three men, already wearing their spacesuits, were seen off by the commander of China’s manned space programme, other uniformed military personnel and a crowd of children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs.

The trio — Tang Hongbo, Liu Boming and Nie Haisheng — gave final waves to a crowd of people waving flags as they entered the lift to take them to the spaceship at the Jiuquan launch centre in north-western China.

The astronauts were travelling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket that blasted off soon after the target time of 9.22am, heading into bright-blue skies with near-perfect visibility at the launch centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The two veteran astronauts and a newcomer making his first space flight are heading to the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station for a three-month stay in its main living compartment, where they will carry out experiments, test equipment, conduct maintenance and prepare the station for receiving two additional modules next year.

The rocket dropped its boosters about two minutes into the flight followed by the coiling surrounding Shenzhou-12 at the top of the rocket. After about 10 minutes it separated from the rocket’s upper section and extended its solar panels.

After the Tianhe was launched in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth, though China dismissed criticism. Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after lift-off, normally over water, and do not go into orbit.

The rocket used on Thursday was of a different type and the components that will re-enter were expected to burn up long before they could be a danger, said Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.

The mission brings to 14 the number of Chinese astronauts travelling into space since China launched its first crewed mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.

The mission is the third of 11 planned through next year to add the additional sections to the station and send up crews and supplies. A fresh three-member crew and a cargo ship with supplies will be sent in three months.

China is not a participant in the International Space Station (ISS), largely as a result of US objections to the Chinese programme’s secrecy and close military ties. However, China has been stepping up cooperation with Russia and a host of other countries, and its station may remain in space beyond the ISS, which is reaching the end of its functional life.

The mission builds on experience China gained from earlier operating two experimental space stations. It also landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and earlier landed a probe and rover on the moon and brought back the first lunar samples by any country’s space programme since the 1970s. – PA

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