China launches first crew of astronauts to space station

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Beijing, June 17 (BNA): China on Thursday launched a spacecraft carrying three astronauts up to the core module of its new space station for the first time.

The spacecraft Shenzhou-12 carrying Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo blasted off from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert on Thursday morning.

Chinese state television showed live images of the launch and of the spacecraft as it unfolded its solar panels in orbit about 15 minutes later.

The astronauts opened their helmet visors and waved at the camera.

They will dock at the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station, which is due to be completed by the end of 2022.

The trip marks the first manned Chinese space mission in five years and marks the latest step in the steady expansion of Beijing's space program, Deutsche press agency (dpa) reported.

The country has further missions planned for decades ahead.

The core module of the new space station, which is under construction, was sent into space at the end of April.

During their stay the astronauts, led by 56-year-old commander Nie, will test important functions of the core module and also carry out scientific experiments.

While Nie and 54-year-old Lio are among China's most experienced astronauts, the trip is the first flight for 45-year-old Tang.

If the three astronauts remain on the core module for three months as planned, it will be the longest-ever stay of Chinese astronauts in space. In 2016, Chinese Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng spent a month in space.

The flight programme is planned on a tight schedule, with the next resupply flight set to launch in September. The last cargo flight with materials and fuel was sent in late May.

Three more astronauts will follow in October.

To complete the space station, two more laboratory modules, each weighing some 20 tons, will also be launched into space. Two more cargo flights and two manned missions are planned in 2022.

If the International Space Station (ISS) ceases to operate as is planned in the next few years, China will be the only country still operating a permanent outpost in space.