Two days after its lift off from China’s Gobi Desert, the Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft has finally docked with Tiangong-2 space lab with the two astronauts beginning their 33 days stay in space.
Shenzhou-11 docked with the Tiangong-2 space lab at 3.31 a.m on Wednesday and the rendezvous took place in the orbit about 393 km above Earth.
The two astronauts aboard Shenzhou-11, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, monitored and reported on the docking operation, relaying their findings to the control centre. Having changed from his space suit into blue overalls, veteran mission commander Jing Haipeng opened the hatch and entered the station shortly after 6 a.m. Beijing time (2200 GMT), followed by astronaut Chen Dong, who is making his first journey into space.
According to the mission schedule, once they enter the space module, the astronauts will spend a total of 33 days in space.
Shenzhou-11, China’s sixth manned spacecraft, will undertake the longest-ever space mission in the country.
China is the third country, after the United States and Russia, to successfully complete space rendezvous and docking procedures.
Tiangong-2 was sent into space on September 15, 2016. It is a key step in building a permanent space station, which the country aims to accomplish by 2020.
The mission displays the growing sophistication of the country’s manned program that first launched a human into space 13 years ago. During their 30-day stay, the astronauts will conduct experiments in medicine and space-related technologies, and test systems and processes in preparation for the launching of the station’s core module in 2018.
A fully functioning space station is on course to begin full operations six years from now and slated to run for at least a decade. China’s manned space program has also conducted a spacewalk, while the lunar program recently decommissioned its Yutu rover and is considering sending a crew to the moon.
The Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” space stations are considered stepping stones to a mission to send a rover to Mars by the end of the decade. Communications with the disused Tiangong 1 station have been cut and it is expected to burn up on entering the atmosphere next year.