China's newest astronaut crew has arrived at its orbital destination.
The three spaceflyers of the Shenzhou 17 mission reached China's Tiangong space station early Thursday morning (Oct. 26), just 6.5 hours or so after lifting off atop a Long March 2F rocket from the Gobi Desert.
The trio soon joined the three Shenzhou 16 astronauts already aboard Tiangong, who greeted the newcomers with hugs as they came through the station's hatch. The six spaceflyers then lined up to relay a message to Mission Control and the rest of us back on Earth.
"Build a dream at the Tiangong space station and continue to work hard," they said in unison (in Mandarin; translation by Chinese broadcaster CCTV, which livestreamed the event). "China's space station is always worth looking forward to."
The Shenzhou 17 crew consists of mission commander Tang Hongbo, 48, and former fighter pilots Tang Shengjie, 34, and Jiang Xinlin, 35. They're the youngest group ever to visit Tiangong, which China began assembling in low Earth orbit in April 2021 and finished about 18 months later.
The Shenzhou 17 astronauts will live aboard the orbiting lab for the next six months, performing a variety of scientific experiments and maintenance tasks. Among those anticipated jobs is a spacewalk designed to inspect and potentially repair Tiangong's solar arrays, which have suffered a few debris impacts and/or micrometeoroid strikes during their short orbital lives.
"Currently, space debris is increasing, so the impacts of small space objects on long-duration operational spacecraft are inevitable," Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency, said during a Shenzhou 17 prelaunch press conference on Wednesday (Oct. 25).
"Previous inspection revealed that the space station's solar panels had also been hit several times by tiny objects in space, suffering minor damage, of course which was taken into account during our design," Lin added.
Shenzhou 17's arrival marks the beginning of the end for the Shenzhou 16 mission, which reached Tiangong in late May. The Shenzhou 16 astronauts — Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao — are scheduled to return to Earth on Oct. 31.
Tiangong, which is about 20% as massive as the International Space Station, is a T-shaped structure consisting of three modules. Shenzhou 17 is the seventh crewed mission to make it to the Chinese outpost to date.