BEIJING -- China's Shenzhou-13 spacecraft, carrying three Chinese astronauts, docked Saturday at the station. This marks the beginning of a six-month-long stay that will set a new record as the country works towards completing its new orbiting outpost.
The Long March-2F rocket launched the spacecraft at 12:23 a.m. on Saturday. It docked with Tianhe's core module at Tiangong at 6:56 a.m. approximately six and a quarter hours later.
According to the China Manned Space Agency, the three astronauts entered Tianhe's core module of the space station at around 10 a.m.
Two men and one woman were the second crew to enter the space station since it was launched in April. The initial crew stayed for three months.
Two space veterans are part of the new crew. Zhai Zhigang (55), Wang Yaping (41), and Ye Guangfu (41), are making their first space trip.
A military band and their supporters sang "Ode to Motherland" as they escorted them off, underscoring the national pride in the space program which has progressed rapidly in recent years.
Three spacewalks will be conducted by the crew to test equipment and assess the living conditions in Tianhe. They also plan to conduct experiments in space medicine.
China's military-run satellite program will send several crews to the station in the next two years, to make it fully functional.
During the Shenzhou-14 crew's stay, two more Chinese modules will be launched.
China's Foreign Ministry reaffirmed Friday its commitment to cooperation in peaceful space use with other countries.
Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China, stated that sending people into space is a common cause of humanity. He said China would "continue expanding the depth and breadth international cooperation and trades" in crewed flight and "make positive contributions towards the exploration of the mysteries and the universe."
China was expelled from the International Space Station due to U.S. concerns over its secretive nature, close military ties and closely held program. China launched two experimental modules to test the waters before it began on the permanent station.
U.S. law requires that Congress approve contact between American and Chinese space programs. However, China is working with space experts from other countries, including France, Sweden and Russia. Chinese officials stated that they are looking forward to hosting astronauts from other nations aboard the space station when it is fully operational.
Since 2003, China has flown seven crewed missions and 14 astronauts on board. Two of these have been twice. This makes China the third country to launch a human spacecraft after the United States.
China has expanded its lunar and Mars exploration efforts, landing a rover at the far side of the Moon. It also returned lunar rocks to Earth for first time since 1970s.
China also launched its Tianwen-1 space probe to Mars this year. The Zhurong rover accompanying it has been searching for signs of life on the red-colored planet.
Another Chinese space program calls for the collection of soil from an asteroids and the return of additional lunar samples. China also has expressed an ambition to land humans on the moon, and perhaps build a scientific base there. However, no timeline has been set. Another highly secretive space plane is being developed.