Taikonauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo have safely docked with China's Tiangong Space Station, making them the first crew members of the new space station and the first Chinese "space travelers" to launch in nearly five years.
China began constructing the modular orbital laboratory (whose name means Heavenly Palace) a few months ago and currently consists of its core module, Tianhe (River in the Heavens, also a nickname for the Milky Way). They will spend the next three months there bringing the module into service, currently orbiting at 380 kilometers (236 miles) above Earth.
The trio launched yesterday, June 17, at 9:22 am Bejing time (1:22 am UTC) onboard the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at the edge of the Gobi Desert. It docked to Tianhe six hours and 32 minutes later.
Videos of the whole docking maneuver have been shared by the Chinese National Space Agency. There are several cameras around Tianhe and Shenzhou so the process has a very cinematographic look and feel to it.
The mission is expected to last 90 days and it will feature two spacewalks. The team will conduct experiments on board as well as keeping fit thanks to the exercise machines equipped in the core module of Tiangong.
The finished space station will be about one-fifth of the mass of the International Space Station (ISS) and will orbit at a similar altitude of between 340 and 450 kilometers (210 and 280 miles). The ISS is kept at around 420 kilometers (260 miles). Two experiment modules will be launched next year. The first, Wentian (meaning Quest for Heavens), is expected to launch around May-June 2022, followed about three months later by Mengtian (meaning Dreaming of Heavens).
The latest addition will be a separated telescope module called Xuntian (whose literal meaning is Touring the heavens). The telescope is going to have a primary mirror 2 meters (6.6 feet) in diameter with a field of view 300 times larger than veteran space telescope Hubble. Over the 10-year primary mission, Xuntian is expected to image 40 percent of the sky with its 2.5 gigapixel camera.
Shenzou 13 is expected to fly with the next crew of taikonauts in October, with the following crews launching in late spring and late fall of 2022.