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Shenzhou 13 astronauts begin China's longest mission ever at space station module (video)

China's longest space mission ever is officially underway. 

The three astronauts of China's Shenzhou 13 mission entered the country's Tianhe module, the core of its Tiangong space station, on Saturday (Oct. 16) to kick off a six-month expedition to the fledgling orbital lab. The astronauts entered the station at 9:58 a.m. Saturday morning Beijing Time (8:58 p.m. Friday EDT, 0058 GMT) about eight hours after launching into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in the Gobi Desert. Their arrival capped a smooth autonomous docking by the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft.

The Shenzhou 13 crew includes commander Zhai Zhigang, China's first spacewalker; Wang Yaping, the first female astronaut to the new station who has also flown before; and first-time spaceflyer Ye Guangfu. Their Shenzhou 13 spacecraft docked at an Earth-facing port on the Tianhe module. Two other uncrewed cargo ships, Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3, are also parked at the module at berths on opposite ends of the station.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

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Shenzhou 13 commander Zhai Zhigang opens the hatch between China's Shenzhou 13 spacecraft and the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station after a successful docking on Oct. 16, 2021.

Shenzhou 13 commander Zhai Zhigang opens the hatch between China's Shenzhou 13 spacecraft and the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station after a successful docking on Oct. 16, 2021. (Image credit: CCTV)
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China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts float inside the Tianhe core module of the country's Tiangong space station after a successful docking on Oct. 16, 2021.

China's Shenzhou 13 astronauts float inside the Tianhe core module of the country's Tiangong space station after a successful docking on Oct. 16, 2021. (Image credit: CCTV)
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This still from a China's CCTV network shows a view from the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft as it approached the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station on Oct. 16, 2021.

This still from a China's CCTV network shows a view from the Shenzhou 13 spacecraft as it approached the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station on Oct. 16, 2021. (Image credit: CCTV)
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This animation shows China's Shenzhou 13 spacecraft (bottom) docked at the Tianhe core module of the country's Tiangong space station with two Tianzhou cargo ships docked at either end.

This animation shows China's Shenzhou 13 spacecraft (bottom) docked at the Tianhe core module of the country's Tiangong space station with two Tianzhou cargo ships docked at either end. (Image credit: CMSE)

Video of the Shenzhou 13 astronauts entering Tianhe show the crew floating inside a pristine white spacecraft as they began to settle into their months-long mission. During their flight, the astronauts will test the station's systems, including a robotic arm. 

One of their tasks includes using a robotic arm to move a Tianzhou cargo ship between docking ports to rehearse in-space construction tasks ahead of the arrival of new modules in 2022, according to state media reports. Between two and three spacewalks are expected during the mission.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter.