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China's Shenzhou 12 spacecraft docks at space station with 3 astronauts

China's Shenzhou 12 spacecraft approaches the nation's Tianhe space station module on June 17, 2021, in this screenshot from a CCTV webcast.
China's Shenzhou 12 spacecraft approaches the nation's Tianhe space station module on June 17, 2021, in this screenshot from a CCTV webcast. (Image credit: CCTV)

Three astronauts have arrived at China's new space station.

The Shenzhou 12 mission docked with Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), the Chinese space station core module, at 3:54 a.m. EDT (0754 GMT) Thursday  (June 17), about 6 1/2 hours after lifting off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.

The three Shenzhou 12 astronauts — Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, all men — will live on board the 54-foot-long (16.6 meters) Tianhe for the next three months, testing its various systems and getting the module fully up and running.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

The Shenzhou 12 launch was the third in less than two months for China's space station program. Tianhe's April 28 liftoff kicked things off. The robotic Tianzhou 2 freighter delivered more than 6.6 tons of supplies to the module a month later and remains docked to Tianhe today.

Eight more launches will be required to finish construction of the space station, Chinese officials have said. Two will loft "lab modules" that will attach to Tianhe, forming the final T-shaped station. The assembly phase, which is expected to wrap up by the end of 2022, will also include three more cargo launches and three additional crewed missions.

Shenzhou 12 was China's first crewed space mission in nearly five years. The most recent one, Shenzhou 11, sent three astronauts to the Tiangong-2 space lab for a one-month stay in late 2016.

Tiangong 2 and its predecessor, Tiangong 1, were built and launched to help lay the foundation for the new orbital outpost, which will be about 15% as massive as the 450-ton International Space Station when all is said and done. China's space station is expected to be operational for at least 10 years.

To read more about the current mission and China's space station, read our Shenzhou 12 launch story

Editor's note: This story originally stated that docking occurred around 4:25 a.m. EDT  on Thursday (June 17). Chinese space officials confirmed that docking actually occurred at 3:54 a.m. EDT, so the story has been updated with that time.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.