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Three astronauts board China’s fledgling space station for the first time

Three Chinese astronauts have successfully boarded the Tianhe space station module, a milestone in the country’s ambitious space program.

Tianhe was launched into orbit on April 29 this year. It is the first piece of China’s modular Tiangong space station, which will be expanded with additional module launches until the end of 2022.

Once completed, the space station will be about one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and is intended to remain in low Earth orbit for use in science experiments.

The three astronauts – Tang Hongbo, Liu Boming and Nie Haisheng (pictured) – were launched aboard the Shenzhou-12 craft that successfully connects about six hours after takeoff from the Jiuquan Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. made with the Tianhe module.

The launch represents China’s first manned spaceflight since 2016, and the crew will live on Tianhe for three months, the longest time Chinese nationals have spent in low Earth orbit.

While staying at the main residence, the astronauts will conduct experiments, test equipment, perform maintenance and prepare the station to receive two additional modules next year.

With NASA considering retiring in 2024, the ISS, which is mainly supported by the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada, could soon make Tiangong the only functional space station in orbit.

“At this current stage, we have not considered the participation of international astronauts, but their future participation will be guaranteed,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program.

“I am aware that many countries have expressed their wish in this regard.” The travel time to the station is shorter than the two days it took to reach China’s previous experimental space stations, due to “a myriad of breakthroughs and innovations,” the mission’s deputy chief designer, Gao Xu, told the state broadcaster. CCTV.

“So the astronauts can rest well in space, which makes them less tired,” he added. After the Tianhe launched in April, the rocket that took it into space made an uncontrolled return to Earth, sparking international criticism of China’s space program — criticism that China largely rejected.

Usually, discarded rocket stages return to the atmosphere shortly after takeoff, normally above water, and do not go into orbit.