China has launched its longest manned space mission, sending two astronauts into orbit to spend about a month aboard a space laboratory.
The launch, which happened on Monday, is part of a bigger plan for the country to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022.
The astronauts took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China.
The Shenzhou 11, whose name translates to Divine Vessel, will dock with the experimental Tiangong 2 space lab and spend 30 days, the longest ever stay by Chinese astronauts in space.
The astronauts on this latest mission were Jing Haipeng, 49, who has already been to space twice, and 37-year-old Chen Dong.
Vice Chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, Fan Changlong, met with the astronauts before the space mission and wished them well according to state news agency Xinhua.
”You are going to travel in space to pursue the space dream of the Chinese nation,”
”With all the scientific and rigorous training, discreet preparation, and rich experience accumulated from previous missions, you will accomplish the glorious and tough task… We wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.”
This and previous launches by China are widely seen as pointers to a possible crewed missions to the Moon or Mars.
Beijing is looking to advance China’s space program with President Xi Jinping calling for the country to establish itself as a space power.
The U.S. Defense Department has highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations using space-based assets in a crisis.
China has been working to develop its space program for military, commercial and scientific purposes, but will have a long way to go to meet-up with established space powers like the U.S. and Russia.