HELSINKI — China’s latest crew of three astronauts arrived at the Tiangong space station Thursday following launch from Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert.

The Shenzhou-18 spacecraft completed rendezvous and docking with Tiangong’s radial docking port at 3:32 p.m. Eastern (1932 UTC), April 25, China’s human spaceflight agency announced shortly after the event.

The Shenzhou-18 astronauts—commander Ye Guangfu and rookies Li Cong and Li Guangsu—will soon be greeted aboard Tiangong by the Shenzhou-17 crew upon opening of the hatch. 

The latter crew, consisting of Tang Hongbo, Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin, have been operating Tiangong since late October 2023. The trio are set to return to Earth early April 30 after handing over control of the station to the incoming Shenzhou-18 astronauts.

Shenzhou-18 launched earlier Thursday. Long March 2F rocket topped with Shenzhou-18 lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 8:59 a.m. Eastern (1259 UTC). The spacecraft separated from the upper stage around 10 minutes later.

Shenzhou-18 is China’s seventh crewed mission to Tiangong and the country’s 13th human spaceflight mission overall. The Shenzhou-18 mission will last roughly six months and be resupplied by the Tianzhou-8 spacecraft around August.

The crew will carry out more than 90 experiments, two to three extravehicular activities, and implement six cargo outbound deliveries via the station’s cargo airlock during their mission.

China approved its space station plan in 1992 and began building the three-module, T-shaped low Earth orbit outpost in 2021. Commander Ye was one of the first visitors to the under-construction space station on the 2021-2022 Shenzhou-13 mission. 

International astronauts and tourists to visit Tiangong

An official with China’s human spaceflight agency reiterated ahead of launch that the country is looking to host international astronauts aboard Tiangong. It is also considering tourist visits.

“We will speed up the study on the feasibility of inviting international astronauts and tourists to the space station,” Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), told media at a pre-launch press conference at Jiuquan, April 24.

CMSEO officials have made similar statements previously but once again did not provide details nor timelines for such activities.

“In the near future, China’s space station will undoubtedly open the door to astronauts from various backgrounds,” Lin said.

China is preparing to expand Tiangong in the coming years. The first move will be sending a multi-functional expansion module with six docking ports to the orbital outpost. This expansion could allow for greater possibilities for international, tourist and commercial visits without disrupting core operations.

Lin also stated April 24 that the selection of the country’s fourth batch of astronauts is soon to be completed. These will engage in the space missions together with the active astronaut. They could be involved in China’s planned crewed moon landing mission, according to Lin.

Lin provided an update on progress of said lunar plans. China aims to put its astronauts on the moon before the end of the decade.

“The program development for major flight products, including the Long March 10 rocket, the Mengzhou crew spacecraft, the lunar lander Lanyue and the lunar landing suits, are all complete. Their prototype production and tests are in full swing,” Lin said.

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...