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Shenzhou 11 launch
A Chinese Long March 2F rocket rises from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, sending the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft with two Chinese spacefliers into orbit. (Credit: CCTV)

Two Chinese astronauts are on their way to an orbiting laboratory for a monthlong mission aimed at preparing the way for a full-fledged Chinese space station.

Veteran military pilots Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong lifted off in the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft atop a Long March 2F rocket at China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert at 7:30 a.m..Beijing time Monday (4:30 p.m. PT Sunday). Jing, a veteran of two earlier space missions, is the commander for what’s expected to be the longest-lasting of China’s six crewed spaceflights to date.

“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” The Associated Press quoted Jing as saying during a pre-launch briefing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who’s attending an economic summit in India, sent a message congratulating the launch team and calling on the country’s astronauts to explore space more fully.

Jing and Chen are due to link up with China’s Tiangong 2 space lab two days after launch and spend 30 days conducting experiments and testing technologies for future flights. One of the experiments involves deploying a microsatellite known as Banxing 2 to inspect the space lab from outside.

Tiangong 2 was launched just last month. It’s seen as an experimental testbed for a larger space station that’s expected to start taking shape with the launch of its core module by as early as 2018. If that schedule holds, two more modules would be launched with the aim of completing construction by 2022. Tiangong 1, China’s first orbiting lab, went out of service in March after five years of operation and is expected to fall out of orbit late next year.

China launched its first astronauts into orbit in 2003, and has plans to send crews to the moon during the 2030s. It also aims to send a rover to Mars in 2020. Current U.S. law bans NASA from cooperating with China due to security concerns, but Beijing’s continued progress in space exploration points either to increased cooperation or heightened competition in the decades ahead.

NASA and the European Space Agency tweeted congratulations to their Chinese counterparts tonight:

 

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