China on Tuesday launched a rocket carrying three astronauts to its space station to replace three others who have been aboard since November, as Beijing aims to become a major space power.
The Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-16 spacecraft lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's northwest province of Gansu at 9:31 a.m., the China Manned Space Agency said. The craft later successfully docked with the space station, China's official Xinhua News Agency said.
The three male astronauts, including the country's first civilian one, will carry out spacewalks and conduct scientific experiments and technology verification during their five-month stay at the Tiangong space station, which was completed late last year.
The T-shaped space station with two lab modules is scheduled to host science experiments from 17 countries, including Japan, Germany, Italy, Poland and Switzerland.
In July, a team from the University of Tokyo together with one from China's Tsinghua University will begin experiments related to rocket engines in the gravity-free environment on the space station, according to sources close to the matter.
The CMSA said China is looking forward to and welcomes the participation of foreign astronauts in the country's space station flight missions.
China plans to launch two manned spacecraft and one or two cargo spacecraft every year, according to the CMSA. The Tiangong space station has already hosted four groups of astronauts, including when it was under construction.
On May 10, China launched the Tianzhou-6 cargo spacecraft, which carried supplies for the Shenzhou-16 crew to the space station.
The next manned mission, Shenzhou-17, will be conducted in October and the three astronauts will witness its arrival during their stay, according to state-run media.
In a related move, China plans to land astronauts on the Moon by 2030, the CMSA said Monday, adding Beijing will develop a new manned spacecraft and a lunar rover to be driven by two astronauts.
China launched its first manned spacecraft in 2003, making it the third nation to put a man in space after the United States and the Soviet Union.