China successfully launched Shenzhou-16 mission, sending three taikonauts (astronauts in Chinese) to its Tiangong (Celestial Palace) space station, including the first Chinese civilian astronaut. The mission marks a significant step in China’s ambitious space program, aimed at catching up with the United States and Russia. 

China sent three astronauts to its Tiangong space station on Tuesday, putting a civilian into orbit for the first time as it pursues plans to send a crewed mission to the Moon by the end of the decade.

The world’s second-largest economy has invested billions of dollars in its military-run space program in a push to catch up with the United States and Russia.

The Shenzhou-16 crew took off atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 9:31 am (0131 GMT).

The launch was a “complete success” and the “astronauts are in good condition,” said Zou Lipeng, director of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Leading its crew is commander Jing Haipeng on his fourth mission, as well as engineer Zhu Yangzhu and Beihang University professor Gui Haichao, the first Chinese civilian in space.

China was the third country to put humans in orbit, and Tiangong is the crown jewel of its space programme, which has also landed robotic rovers on Mars and the Moon.

Shenzhou-16 is the first mission to Tiangong since it entered its “application and development” stage, authorities said.

Shenzhou-16 will carry out several experiments during the mission, including in “high-precision space time-frequency systems”, general relativity, and into the origin of life, CMSA spokesperson Lin Xiqiang told reporters on Monday.

Plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive under President Xi Jinping, and it is planning to build a moon base.

China plans to send two crewed space missions to Tiangong every year, according to the CMSA.

The next will be Shenzhou-17, with an expected launch in October.

Miroslava Salazar with AFP