HELSINKI — A crew of three astronauts including the first Chinese civilian astronaut has arrived at the Tiangong space station.

A Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-16 spacecraft lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 9:31 p.m. Eastern May 29. Rendezvous and docking with a radial Tiangong docking port was completed at 4:29 a.m. May 30, China’s human spaceflight agency, CMSA, confirmed.

Commander Jing Haipeng, embarking on his fourth visit to space, spaceflight engineer Zhu Yangzhu and payload specialist and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao—the first Chinese civilian in space—make up the crew of the six-month-long Shenzhou-16 mission.

Zhu and Gui are the first individuals to fly to space from a third selection round of Chinese astronauts chosen in 2020.

The successful launch of the mission also means that, briefly, there are 17 astronauts in orbit for the first time. The four-person Axiom-2 mission is due to undock from the larger International Space Station later May 30.

At time of reporting six Chinese astronauts, five Americans, three Russians, two Saudis, and one Emarati astronaut were in orbit. In December 2021, 19 people were in space when the six-person crew of Blue Origin NS-19 briefly crossed the Karman line and joined crews aboard the ISS and Tiangong in space.

Jing, Zhu and Gui will be greeted aboard the Tiangong space station by the Shenzhou-15 crew. Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu have been aboard Tiangong since November, conducting science experiments, outreach events and a national record of four extravehicular activities. 

The arrival of Shenzhou-16 marks the start of Tiangong’s second crew handover, and will briefly see six astronauts aboard the orbital outpost. The Shenzhou-15 crew are expected to land around 6:30 p.m. Eastern June 3, according to airspace closure notices.

The mission has been hailed as one of major significance for China. “China’s space station has entered the application and development stage. Our ability today to produce Shenzhou spacecraft is no longer the same as before,” He Yu, chief commander of crewed spaceship systems at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told CCTV.

“Shenzhou-16 is the first of this batch of six crewed spacecraft we plan to build. After 30 years’ efforts, our capabilities in design, production, carrying out experiments including organizing large-scale field experiments, have all seen qualitative leaps.”

Other CAST officials stated that more than 100 technical improvements and upgrades have been made over the previous Shenzhou spacecraft, including the greater use of domestically made components. Diao Weihe, chief electricity designer of crewed spacecraft systems at CAST, said further plans for improved safety and reliability were in the works.

The Shenzhou-16 astronauts will conduct a range of on-orbit tests and experiments in various fields, including quantum phenomena, high-precision space time-frequency systems, the verification of general relativity, and the origins of life. 

The crew will also conduct spacewalks and carry out maintenance, live lectures from space and other operational activities.

Huang Weifen, the chief designer of the astronaut system of China’s human spaceflight program, also noted adaptations in astronaut training specifically designed to prepare payload specialists for space.

China launched the Tianzhou-6 cargo spacecraft to Tiangong May 10 to deliver supplies, science experiments and equipment and propellant to support the Shenzhou-16 mission.

The country aims to keep Tiangong constantly occupied and operational in orbit for at least ten years. It is also looking to expand the space station with a “multi-functional module.” The module would allow China to further expand the size of the space station and enhance its capacity, according to officials.

CMSA also recently announced a call for commercial solutions for delivering cargo to Tiangong. Other commercial and potential tourist activity is being considered.

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...