China on Tuesday successfully sent three astronauts including its first civilian into orbit as it launched the Shenzhou-16 manned mission to its space station for its second crew rotation, signalling another leap forward for the country's ambitious space programme.
The spaceship, atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China at 9:31 AM (Beijing Time), according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).
About 10 minutes after the launch, Shenzhou-16 separated from the rocket and entered its designated orbit. The crew members are in good shape and the launch is a complete success, the CMSA declared.
Hours later the spaceship successfully docked with the space station's core module about 400km above the ground, the CMSA said.
After that, it conducted a fast-automated rendezvous and docked with the radial port of its core module Tianhe.
The astronaut trio aboard Shenzhou-16 will then enter the Tianhe module and the three astronauts of the Shenzhou-15 mission who are preparing to return to Earth have got ready for their arrival, it said.
For the first time, China has included a civilian in its rotating crew for the space station which otherwise remained a domain of the military personnel.
Gui Haichao, a professor at Beihang University in Beijing regarded as a payload specialist, was among the three astronauts.
The other two are mission's commander Jing Haipeng, who is also making history by becoming the first Chinese astronaut to go into space for a record fourth time.
The astronaut flight engineer Zhu Yangzhu is also making his first journey into space.
The Shenzhou-16 will be the first crew mission after China's space station programme entered the stage of application and development, Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the CMSA told the media on Monday.
The trio will take over from the Shenzhou-15 astronauts, who have been on China's newly completed Tiangong space station since November, to start their own five-month stint aboard the station.
Once ready, China will be the only country to own a space station as the International Space Station (ISS) of Russia is a collaborative project of several countries. The ISS station is also set to be decommissioned by 2030.
The significant feature of China's space station is its two robotic arms, especially the long one which has the ability to grab objects, including satellites from space.
After entering orbit, the Shenzhou-16 spaceship will make a fast, automated rendezvous and docking with the space station combination.
The Shenzhou-16 astronauts will conduct large-scale in-orbit tests and experiments in various fields as planned. They are expected to make high-level scientific achievements in the study of novel quantum phenomena, high-precision space-time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity, and the origin of life.
The launch also marks the 475th flight mission of the Long March carrier rocket series.
On Monday, the CMSA also announced China's plan for a manned lunar landing by 2030.
China's manned lunar mission came as the US space agency NASA aims to send a second manned mission to the moon by 2025 to explore the south pole for frozen water.
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