China Saturday launched a rocket carrying three astronauts to its new space station on what is set to be the country’s longest crewed mission to date, state-run news agency Xinhua said, the latest landmark in Beijing’s drive to become a major extraterrestrial power.
The trio blasted off on a Long March-2F rocket just after 1620 GMT from the Jiuquan launch centre in northwestern China’s Gobi desert, with the team expected to spend six months at the Tiangong space station.
The mission — twice as long as its 90-day predecessor — will set up equipment and test technology for future construction on Tiangong.
Mission commander Zhai Zhigang, 55, a former fighter pilot who performed the country’s first spacewalk in 2008, said the team would undertake “more complex” spacewalks than previous missions.
The astronaut team includes military pilot Wang Yaping, 41, who will become the first woman to visit the nation’s space station, after previously becoming China’s second woman in space in 2013.
Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace”, is part of China’s heavily promoted space programme that has already seen the nation land a rover on Mars and send probes to the moon.
The first crew on the space station returned from their record-breaking three-month mission in September.
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