China’s Shenzhou-11 spacecraft blasted off on Monday morning carrying two astronauts to dock with an orbiting space laboratory.
The mission forms part of China’s plans to build a full space station by 2022
The spacecraft, carried on a Long March 2F rocket, was launched from a space centre in the Gobi desert in northwest China at about 7.30 am before entering its designated orbit.
It marks the start of China’s longest manned space mission, according to state media.
Shenzhou-11 will dock with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory where the astronauts will live for 30 days and conduct a series of tests and experiments.
Two-time veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng, 49, is leading the mission.
He is accompanied by Chen Dong, 37, who is making his debut in China’s space programme.
Jing’s previous space flights were on the Shenzhou-7 mission in 2008 and the Shenzhou-9 in 2012.
President Xi Jinping, who is currently visiting India, sent a message of congratulations for the successful lift-off which was read out at the launch centre by General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
“I hope of our comrades uphold the spirit of China’s manned space missions and do well in their subsequent tasks … and make new contributions enabling us to become a strong space power,” the message said.
A major task for the Shenzhou-11 mission is to test the technology used to build and operate a space station orbiting 393 km above the earth, according to the state run news agency Xinhua.
China hopes to launch a core module of the space station by about 2018 and the rest of the parts by 2022.
The astronauts will also carry out a series of scientific experiments, including three coming from the winners of a space science contest for Hong Kong schools last year.
“Their designs are full of creative ideas,” Chen said at a press conference before the launch.
The two astronauts will stay in orbit twice as long as the previous space crew sent to the Tiangong-1 space lab in 2013.
The new crew will be provided with better exercise and medical facilities as well as psychological support during their mission, a spokesperson for the space programme said at a press conference on Sunday.
The two astronauts will also share details of the mission via text, audio and videos on Xinhua.
China plans to deploy a probe to Mars in 2020 and put astronauts on the moon in the coming decades.