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China's space program leaps ahead as 'taikonauts' in orbit

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China’s space ambitions have forged ahead as three astronauts arrived at the country’s nascent space station.

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Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou 12 successfully docked with the core Tianhe module of the space station that is under construction.

The docking manoeuvre was carried out automatically, Chinese media reported.

The flight represents the first manned Chinese space mission in five years.

The three Chinese space farers are set to spend three months in orbit – a record for Chinese “taikonauts” – and will use the time to help set up the space station.

The station is under construction with two more modules set to be connected to it before it is complete in 2022.

Shenzhou 12 – carrying Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo – blasted off from the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert on Thursday morning.

During their stay the astronauts, led by 56-year-old commander Nie, plan to test important functions of the core module and also carry out scientific experiments.

The flight program is planned on a tight schedule, with the next resupply flight set to launch in September.

The last cargo flight with materials and fuel was sent in late May.

Three more astronauts will follow in October.

To complete the space station, two more laboratory modules – each weighing 20 tonnes – will also be launched into space.

Two more cargo flights and two manned missions are planned in 2022.

If the International Space Station (ISS) ceases to operate as is planned in the next few years, China will be the only country still operating a permanent outpost in space.

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