China’s longest space mission ever is officially underway.
The three astronauts of China’s Shenzhou 13 mission entered the country’s Tianhe module, the core of its Tiangong space station, on Saturday (Oct. 16) to kick off a six-month expedition to the fledgling orbital lab. The astronauts entered the station at 9:58 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing Time (8:58 p.m. Friday EDT, 0058 GMT) about eight hours after launching into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in the Gobi Desert. Their arrival capped a smooth autonomous docking by the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft.
The Shenzhou 13 crew includes commander Zhai Zhigang, China’s first spacewalker; Wang Yaping, the first female astronaut to the new station who has also flown before; and first-time spaceflyer Ye Guangfu. Their Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at an Earth-facing port on the Tianhe module. Two other uncrewed cargo ships, Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3, are also parked at the module at berths on opposite ends of the station.
Video of the Shenzhou 13 astronauts entering Tianhe show the crew floating inside a pristine white spacecraft as they began to settle into their months-long mission. During their flight, the astronauts will test the station’s systems, including a robotic arm.
One of their tasks includes using a robotic arm to move a Tianzhou cargo ship between docking ports to rehearse in-space construction tasks ahead of the arrival of new modules in 2022, according to state media reports. Between two and three spacewalks are expected during the mission.