HELSINKI — Three new astronauts have arrived at China’s Tiangong space station following launch from the Gobi Desert late Wednesday.

A Long March 2F rocket tipped with the Shenzhou-17 spacecraft lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 11:14 p.m. Eastern, Oct. 25 (0314 UTC, Oct. 26). The spacecraft separated from the upper stage 10 minutes later. Zou Lipeng, commander of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, announced the launch a complete success.

Rendezvous and docking at Tiangong’s forward docking port was completed 6.5 hours later, at 5:46 a.m. Oct. 26, China’s human spaceflight agency confirmed.

The Shenzhou-17 astronauts will soon be greeted aboard Tiangong by the Shenzhou-16 crew, who will hand over control of the station and depart for Earth Oct. 31.

The Shenzhou-17 crew is composed of commander Tang Hongbo, a veteran of Shenzhou-12—the first mission to visit Tiangong’s Tianhe core module in 2021—and former air force pilots Tang Shengjie and Jiang Xinlin. The trio will spend around six months aboard Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace in English.

Tang was recruited as part of a second batch of Chinese astronauts in 2010. The latter pair were selected as members of China’s third batch of astronauts in September 2020. A fourth selection round is currently underway, and could include, for the first time, astronauts from Hong Kong or Macau.

Shenzhou-17 is China’s sixth crewed mission to Tiangong, and the country’s 12th overall. The astronauts will perform maintenance tasks, conduct science experiments and outreach events.

They will also perform a first extravehicular activity to carry out experimental maintenance operations outside Tiangong, according to Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), speaking at a press conference Oct. 25. 

Lin stated that preliminary inspections found that the space station’s large solar arrays were repeatedly hit by tiny particles, causing minor damage.

Shenzhou-17 will receive the Tianzhou-7 cargo spacecraft to Tiangong in the first half of 2024. They will hand over the station to the Shenzhou-18 crew at the end of their six months in orbit.

Evolving space station plans

China approved its plan to develop human spaceflight capabilities in 1992, with the ultimate aim of constructing a modular space station. China launched its first astronaut into orbit in October 2003 with Shenzhou-5, and completed Tiangong in late 2022. The space station was initially stated to consist of three modules and operate for 10 years.

China is now planning to expand Tiangong with a multipurpose module. This will allow further full-sized modules to dock with the orbital outpost. The lifespan could also be extended, keeping it in orbit long after the International Space Station is expected to be deorbited.

CMSEO also solicited proposals for a low-cost cargo transportation system to Tiangong. Many of the proposals are seeking to leverage commercial launch vehicles, according to CMSEO.

The agency also stated this year it would begin selecting international astronauts for visits to Tiangong. The station currently has a long-duration capacity of three astronauts, with crews in orbit for six months at a time. 

It is unknown if international astronauts would stay aboard for a short stay, during crew handover, and see one Chinese astronaut remain in orbit for the duration of two missions, or participate for a full duration mission. 

An expanded Tiangong would mean the station could host more astronauts at one time. The country’s new generation crew spacecraft and launch vehicle, expected to fly in 2027 for the first time, would allow more astronauts to fly to Tiangong than the three-person capacity Shenzhou.

China is also planning to send a pair of astronauts to the moon before 2030. Tiangong will provide the country with long-duration spaceflight experience. Yang Liwei, who flew on the historic Shenzhou-5 mission, recently told state media that the astronauts for the mission would be selected from those with prior spaceflight experience.

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...