Three astronauts have blasted off to the nearly completed Chinese space station, marking the start of China’s long-term presence in space, according to CNN.

The three astronauts were launched aboard the Shenzhou-15 spacecraft on November 29 at 23:08 local time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-15 spacecraft is expected to dock with the Tiangong space station about 6.5 hours after launch.

The arrival of the three astronauts, Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, will mark the first crew rotation on the space station, with two teams to overlap for five to 10 days before the Shenzhou-14 crew, which landed on the station in June, to return to Earth.

A major achievement for China’s ambitious space program

The Shenzhou-15 mission will complete the construction of the orbital outpost by the end of December and launch the first stage of its “development,” Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Space Agency, said at a press conference recently, according to state media Xinhua.

During the mission, the crew will perform more than 40 experiments and tests in the fields of scientific research, medicine and space technology.

Experts consider the event a major achievement for China’s ambitious space program, which has explored the far side of the Moon and Mars. This milestone means that the International Space Station’s role as the only human-occupied site in Earth’s orbit is coming to an end.

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