China Launches Three Astronauts to Its Space Station

The crew will spend six months in orbit and conduct a number of science experiments

The rocket carrying the spacecraft with the three Chinese astronauts lifts off from Earth
The rocket carrying the spacecraft with the three Chinese astronauts lifts off from Earth.  CNS/AFP via Getty Images

China’s Shenzhou 15 spacecraft successfully delivered three astronauts to Tiangong, the country’s space station, at 4:42 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday.

The spacecraft had launched at 10:08 a.m. Eastern time, carrying astronauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, per the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.

They were greeted aboard Tiangong by three astronauts who are wrapping up a six-month mission, the Associated Press (AP) writes. The two crews will work together for about a week before the first crew returns to Earth.

According to China’s state media, the new arrivals will finish the construction of the space station, per CNN’s Katie Hunt and Alex Stambaugh. China launched the first component of the space station, the core module, in April 2021, according to Wired’s Ramin Skibba. Its other two modules, both laboratory modules, launched earlier this year, per CNN.

Tiangong has become the first continuously crewed space station alongside the International Space Station (ISS) since Russia’s Mir station was deorbited in 2001, per Wired. Space agencies from the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada manage the ISS.

The ISS is expected to remain operational until 2030. NASA is hoping private sector companies can build new facilities, but they might not be complete by 2030, writes the Post. Tiangong is expected to last 10 to 15 years, so it might someday be the lone space station in use, per the AP.

The astronauts will use the space station to conduct over 100 science experiments during their six-month visit, according to Space.com’s Andrew Jones. Experiments will include studying the effects of gravity using a precise atomic clock and peering into the distant universe with a space telescope, per the New York Times’ Keith Bradsher. Around 1,000 experiments could be conducted on Tiangong while it remains operational, per CNN.

China’s space program is now “rivaling the prowess of the United States,” writes the Post.

“This project demonstrates to the world that China has both the vision and capabilities to pull off such an immensely challenging feat,” Molly Silk, who studies China’s space program at the University of Manchester in the U.K., tells CNN.

A Chinese rover was the first to explore the far side of the moon in early 2019, and a lunar probe transported moon rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s, per the AP.

China plans on eventually sending a person to the moon. “It will not take a long time; we can achieve the goal of manned moon landing,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s crewed space program, tells the Times.

Congress prohibits NASA from collaborating with the Chinese space program due to perceived national security concerns, per Wired. European officials have been hesitant to collaborate with China in space due to the country’s human rights record and military buildup, writes the Times.

But researchers from other countries will be contributing to scientific experiments aboard the space station, per the Times. And astronauts from other countries might eventually travel to Tiangong, according to Wired.

“Several European astronauts have been learning Chinese in order to better cooperate with their Chinese counterparts, which suggests that a visit to the [Chinese space station] could be on the cards,” Silk tells CNN.