BEIJING, China (AP) — China launched a new three-person mission on Sunday to finish assembly work on its permanent orbiting space station.
The Shenzhou 14 crew will spend six months on the Tiangong station, overseeing the addition of two laboratory modules to the main Tianhe living space, which will be launched in April 2021.
At 10:44 a.m. (0244 GMT), their spaceship lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert atop the crewed space flight program's workhorse Long March 2F rocket. It reached low Earth orbit and opened its solar panels 15 minutes later, drawing applause from ground controllers in Jiuquan and Beijing.
The launch was broadcast live on state television, indicating a growing level of confidence in the space program's capabilities, which has been promoted as a symbol of China's technological progress and global influence.
Commander Chen Dong and fellow astronauts Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe will put together the three-module structure that will connect the existing Tianhe with Wentian and Mengtian, which are scheduled to arrive in July and October, respectively. Another cargo ship, the Tianzhou-3, is still docked at the station.
The arrival of the new modules will "provide more stability, more powerful functions, and more complete equipment," said Chen, 43, a member of the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016.
Liu, 43, is a space veteran who became China's first female astronaut aboard the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012. Cai, 46, is making his first trip into space.
China's space program launched its first astronaut into orbit in 2003, making it only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.
Last year, it landed robot rovers on the moon and one on Mars. China has also returned lunar samples, and officials have discussed the possibility of a crewed moon mission.
China's space program is run by the People's Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party, prompting the United States to exclude it from the International Space Station.
Chen, Liu, and Cai will be joined for three to five days at the end of their mission by the crew of the upcoming Shenzhou 15, marking the station's first time with six people aboard.