BEIJING (AP) — China launched a pair of astronauts into space Monday on a mission to dock with an experimental space station and remain aboard for 30 days in preparation for the assembly of a full facility six years from now.
The Shenzhou 11 mission took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China at 7:30 a.m. (2330 GMT) aboard a Long March-2F carrier rocket.
It will dock with the Tiangong 2 space station precursor facility within two days, conduct experiments in medicine and various space-related technologies, and test systems and processes in preparation for the launching of the station’s core module in 2018.
Following the attachment of two experiment modules, the entire station is designed to begin full operations in 2022 and will operate for at least a decade.
An earlier Tiangong 1 experimental space station launched in 2011 went out of service in March after extending its mission for two years and docking with three visiting spacecraft. The Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” stations are considered stepping stones to a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.
The astronauts flying the mission are Jing Haipeng, who is flying his third mission, and 37-year-old Chen Dong.
“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” Jing, who will turn 50 during the mission, said at a briefing Sunday.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so, and has since staged a spacewalk and landed its Yutu rover on the moon. Administrators suggest a manned landing on the moon may also be in the program’s future.
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