Two astronauts have arrived at China’s experimental Tiangong 2 space station, according to China’s official news agency, Xinhua. The Shenzhou 11 manned spacecraft docked with the space station on Tuesday. This development makes China the third country, after the United States and Russia, to successfully complete landing and docking procedures in space. The astronauts, Jing Haipeng and 37-year-old Chen Dong, will spend 30 days at the space station, making the 33-day mission the longest ever for China. Jing Haipeng will turn 50 during his time in space.
“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” said Jing, who is now on third space mission. It is the sixth time China has launched astronauts into space.
The Shenzhou 11 craft is also carrying three experiments designed by Hong Kong middle school students, selected in a science competition. One of the experiments involves taking silkworms into space. The craft launched on October 16th, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, aboard a Long March-2F carrier rocket. The launch was declared successful at 7:46am (2346 GMT).
The astronauts will conduct experiments relating to medicine and other space technology, including systems and processes for the station’s core module which will be launched in 2018. After the attachment of two experiment modules, the station is expected to start full operations in 2022, and continue operating for at least a decade.
President Xi Jinping has made advancing China’s space program a top priority, calling for work to catch up with established space powers such as the US and Russia. In 2013, three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days orbiting Earth, docking with space laboratory Tiangong 1, which went out of service this past March. China’s first manned mission into space was launched in 2003, and the program has progressed quickly, landing the Yutu rover on the surface of the moon, among other landmark missions.
The Tiangong, meaning “Heavenly Palace,” stations are considered steps towards an eventual Chinese mission to land a rover on Mars by the end of the decade.
China’s space program is now working to develop the Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket, necessary to launch additional components for the Tiangong 2 station.
China’s space program has caught the attention of the US Department of Defense, who claim that it was developing a program to interfere with the operation of the space-based assets of other nations in the event of an international crisis.