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A Chinese Long March 2F rocket blasted off today carrying the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft and three taikonauts including 33-year-old female fighter pilot Liu Yang, China’s first woman sent to orbit. The launch was at 10:37 UTC on June 16, — in the early evening at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. In the next few days the crew will manually dock to the Chinese Spacelab Tiangong-1 which was launched late last year. Their mission will is scheduled to last 13 days, for the first Chinese manned vehicle to dock in orbit.
Along with Yang are Jing Haipeng, the commander and a veteran of two other spaceflights, and Liu Wang.
The launch was carried live on state television, and before lift-off, the camera showed the three crew members in the spacecraft occasionally waving.
This is China’s fourth human space mission since 2003 when astronaut Yang Liwei became the country’s first person in orbit.
Once Shenzhou 9 reaches the vicinity of Tiangong 1, the crew will perform a manual docking, but the Chinese space agency has said future missions will have automated dockings.
Some reports have indicated the Shenzhou spacecraft is designed with a common docking system that would allow it to dock with the International Space Station in the future should China be invited to visit.
Once on board the Taingong 1, the crew will do some medical research and conduct other research including monitoring live butterflies and butterfly eggs and pupae.
China has said they hope to add more modules to their space station, with a final version of it built by 2020. A white paper released last December outlining China’s ambitious space program said the country “will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.”