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Rocket launches three astronauts to future Chinese space station

China has launched a rocket carrying three astronauts, including one woman, to the core module of a future space station where they will live and work for six months, the longest-ever duration in orbit for Chinese astronauts.

Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft, which means Divine Vessel in Chinese, blasted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the northwestern province of Gansu at 12.23am Beijing time (16.23GMT yesterday).

China began construction of the space station in April with the launch of Tianhe – the first and largest of the station’s three modules. Slightly bigger than a city bus, Tianhe will be the living quarters of the completed space station.

Shenzhou-13 is the second of four crewed missions needed to complete the space station by the end of 2022. During the first crewed mission that concluded last month, three other astronauts stayed on Tianhe for 90 days.

In the latest mission, astronauts will carry out tests of the key technologies and robotics on Tianhe needed to assemble the space station, verify on-board life support systems and conduct a host of scientific experiments.

The mission commander is Zhai Zhigang (55) from China’s very first batch of astronaut trainees in the late 1990s.

Born to a rural family of six children, Zhai carried out China’s first spacewalk in 2008. Shenzhou-13 was his second space mission.

“The most challenging task will be the long-term stay in orbit for six months,” he said at a press conference on Thursday.

“It will exact higher demands on us, both physically and psychologically.”

Zhai was accompanied by Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu (both 41).

Ms Wang, the mother of a five-year-old, was also born to a rural family.

Known among her colleagues for her tenacity, the former air force pilot first travelled to space in 2013, to Tiangong-1, a prototype space lab.

China has so far sent two female astronauts to space. The first was Liu Yang, in 2012.

Shenzhou-13 was the first space mission for the third astronaut, Ye.

After the return of the Shenzhou-13 crew to Earth next April, China will deploy six more missions.

With the ISS set to retire in a few years, China’s space station will become the only one in Earth’s orbit.

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