JIUQUAN, China – Three Chinese astronauts have started settling into China’s new space station for the next three months, after their launch and arrival at the station on Thursday marked further progress in the country’s ambitious space program .

Their Shenzhou-12 spacecraft connected to the station about six hours after taking off from the Jiuquan Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

About three hours later, Commander Nie Haisheng, followed by Liu Boming and space recruit Tang Hongbo, opened the hatches and floated into the Tianhe-1, the main living segment of the station. The footage showed them busy unpacking their gear and at one point turning to the camera to greet and greet the audience back on Earth.

“This is the first time that Chinese people have entered their own space station,” state broadcaster CCTV said in its evening news.

China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own. Chinese leaders hope the mission will be a complete success as the ruling Communist Party prepares to celebrate its centenary next month.

Although contact between the Chinese space program and NASA is limited by US law, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson released a statement on Thursday expressing: “Congratulations to China on the crew’s successful launch to his space station! I look forward to the scientific discoveries to come.

The mission is the third of 11 planned until next year to connect the Tianhe-1 to two lab modules and dispatch teams and supplies. The current crew will perform experiments, test equipment and prepare for future missions.

New crew and supplies will be dispatched in three months. Each crew will be composed of three members, the capacity of the station being six, during crew exchanges. Two of the ancient Chinese astronauts were women, and future crews at the station will include women.

Uniformed military personnel and children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs saw the astronauts before they entered the Shenzhou-12 to be thrown into space on top of a Long March rocket -2F Y12 at 9:22 a.m. (01:22 a.m. GMT) Thursday Beijing time.

The rocket dropped its thrusters about two minutes after the start of flight, followed by the cowl surrounding the crew’s craft. After about 10 minutes, it separated from the top of the rocket, extended its solar panels, and entered orbit shortly thereafter.

About half a dozen adjustments made it possible to align the craft for docking with the Tianhe-1, or Heavenly Harmony, module at around 4 p.m. (08:00 GMT).

Travel time is down from the two days it took to reach China’s first experimental space stations, due to “many breakthroughs and innovations,” the mission’s deputy chief designer said, Gao Xu, on public television station CCTV.

“So the astronauts can rest in space, which should make them less tired,” Gao said.

Other improvements include an increase in the number of automated and remote-controlled systems that are expected to “significantly reduce the pressure on astronauts,” Gao said.

China is not participating in the International Space Station, in large part because of US objections to the secrecy of Chinese programs and close military ties. However, China has stepped up cooperation with Russia and many other countries, and its station may continue to operate beyond the International Space Station, which is reaching the end of its functional life.

Chinese space officials also said foreigners could be part of the station’s future crews after it is fully built next year.

China landed a probe on Mars last month that carried a rover, the Zhurong, and has already landed a probe and rover on the less explored far side of the moon and brought back the first lunar samples by the program. space of any country since the 1970s.

China and Russia also unveiled an ambitious plan this week for a Joint International Lunar Research Station until 2036. This could compete and possibly conflict with the multinational Artemis Agreements, a space cooperation plan that supports them. NASA plans to return humans to the moon by 2024. and launch a historic human mission to Mars.

After the launch of the Tianhe-1 in April, the rocket that carried it into space made an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth. Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere shortly after take-off, normally over water, and do not orbit.

China dismissed criticism of the potential security hazard at the time, and officials said the rocket used on Thursday was of a different type and the return components would have to burn out before they could pose a danger.

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