Beijing: On Sunday China moved a step closer to establish its permanent space station by 2022 as it launched a spacecraft carrying two astronauts, in its longest-ever manned space mission, who would later join its second experimental space lab orbiting the Earth.
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, 50, and Chen Dong, 37, were blasted off into space by Shenzhou-11 (heavenly vessel) spacecraft at 7:30 am local time (5 am IST) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre near the Gobi Desert in northern China. The launch was telecasted live by the state-run China Central Television (CCTV).
The Shenzhou-11 was put into orbit by a Long March-2F carrier rocket.
It will dock with orbiting space lab Tiangong-2 in two days and the astronauts will stay in the lab for 30 days, Wu Ping, Deputy Director of China's manned space engineering office said.
Hours before the lift-off, the two astronauts appeared in good spirits and answered several questions.
"Although the job is challenging, risky and dangerous, there is nothing more I would rather do," Jing, who is commander of this mission, told reporters.
It will be Jing's third spaceflight following his Shenzhou-7 mission in September 2008 and Shenzhou-9 mission in March 2012.
"(For this mission) we have improved our ability to deal with emergencies, first aid and space experiments," Jing said.
"I will treasure every moment in space and ensure I record my experience in my diary and enjoy the out-of-this-world scenery," Chen said.
China, which conducted its first manned space mission in 2003, is putting in billions into its space programme in a bid to catch up with the US and Europe. It also plans to launch its maiden Mars mission in 2020 to match India and others.
China has said its space programme is for peaceful purposes, but it has also tested anti-satellite missiles in addition to its civilian aims.
The Shenzhou-11 spaceship will return to Earth within a day after docking the two astronauts on Tiangong-2 space lab and separating from it, Wu said.
Jing will command the mission to the space lab which was launched last month.
With a safe flight record of 1,500 hours as an air force pilot, Chen became China's second group of astronauts in May 2010, and was selected as a crew member of the Shenzhou-11 mission in June 2016, Wu said.
This will be his first space mission.
The space lab was launched as part of China's efforts to set up its own manned space station by 2022, which will make it the only the country to have such a facility in service as the current in-service International Space Station (ISS) retires by 2024.
Other objectives of the manned space mission include aerospace medical experiments, space science experiments and in-orbit maintenance with human participation, as well as other activities, Wu said.
The two astronauts will undertake ultrasound tests during space travel for the first time, cultivate plants in space, and test the three winners of an experiment design competition run in Hong Kong for secondary school students.
Several technical alterations have been made to Shenzhou- 11, though its main functions and technical parameters are basically the same as Shenzhou-10, Wu said.
Lei Fanpei, chairman of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC), recently said China plans to launch the experimental core module of its space station around 2018 with a Long March-5 heavy load carrier rocket, and the 20 ton combination space station will be sent into orbit around 2022.
The space station has a designed life of 10 years in orbit 400 km above the earth surface. With this space station, China will become the second country after Russia to have developed a space station.
China made a three-step strategy in 1992 for its manned space programme, the large-scale manned space station being the last step.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping who is currently in India to attend the BRICS summit congratulated the space scientists for the successful launch, saying that it is a milestone in China's space programme.
His message of congratulations was read by Fan Changlong, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the overall high command of the Chinese military. The President is the chairman of CMC.
In Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang watched the successful launch from the Beijing Control Centre of the space mission.