Chinese astronauts reach space station for three-month mission

BEIJING : Three Chinese astronauts yesterday flew to an unfinished space station in China's first crewed mission since 2016, expanding the country's already growing near-Earth presence and challenging US leadership in orbital space.

The astronauts rode to Tianhe - the module that will be the living quarters of China's completed space station - on Shenzhou-12, or "Divine Vessel". The crew boarded the module, where they will live for three months, the longest stay in low-Earth orbit by any Chinese national.

China's space station, due to be finished by end of next year, will be the only alternative to the two-decade-old, US-led International Space Station (ISS), which may be retired in 2024.

If the ISS - backed mainly by the US, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada - is decommissioned, China would be the operator of the only active space station.

"At this current stage, we have not considered the participation of international astronauts, but their future participation will be guaranteed," said chief designer of China's manned space programme Zhou Jianping.The Shenzhou-12 astronauts Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45, will test out technologies on Tianhe, including its life-support system. - REUTERS