Chinese astronauts entered the country’s Tiangong space station on Thursday afternoon, hours after lifting off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
The three entered the core module that will be their home for the next three months after the Shenzhou 12 launch craft successfully completed docking.
The astronauts performed some procedures manually, but most of the flight – including the final approach – was handled by computers.
The use of computers has cut the docking process from two days to just a few hours. The fast-docking technology will also help evacuate astronauts in the event of emergency, says the South China Morning Post.
The space station will grow rapidly in the coming months as more modules, cargo and crew arrive. The station should be operational next year.
Tiangong, meaning Heavenly Palace, will become the largest infrastructure built and maintained by a single country in near-earth orbit.
The three astronauts follow 11 other Chinese citizens to have gone into space.
“It feels great,” said crew commander Nie, after reaching near-earth orbit.
The space mission is the 56-year-old’s third. Another veteran, Liu Boming, 54, and 45-year-old Tang Hongbo make up the rest of the crew.
Niu and Liu are older than previous Chinese astronauts, including the country’s first, Yang Liwei, who went into orbit at the age of 38 nearly two decades ago.
The youngest astronaut on the mission, Tang is making his first space flight. Information about him is scarce, but he was born in 1975 in Xiangtan, in the southern province of Hunan. Like his colleagues, he was an air force pilot before being recruited by the manned space programme in 2010.
Former astronaut Yang, now deputy director general of China’s manned space programme, has said that the age of the crew does not matter.
“We have given them some help to adapt to this flight. I think their age is not a problem for the mission,” he said in an interview with state television.
“The flight was perfectly smooth,” Chen Shanguang, deputy director of China’s manned space programme, said soon after Shenzhou 12 reached its designated orbit on Thursday morning.
The Tianhe module will serve as the main living and work area for arriving astronauts. Compared to the studio-sized space laboratory that launched five years ago and hosted astronauts for a few weeks, it has three separate bedrooms along with a shower and a gym.
Yang said the work awaiting the astronauts would be extremely challenging and complex, but they had trained hard to complete the tasks.
This achievement will be a major point of pride as the country prepares for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist party in July, says CNBC.
Beijing has made space exploration a top priority as China looks to challenge the US in a number of areas of technology.
The mission is the latest stage in China’s ambitious plans to be the only country to own and run its own space station, expected to be completed less than two years from now.
Tiangong, will rival the International Space Station which is backed by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada, and Japan.