China launched three astronauts on the Shenzhou 15 spaceship en route to the Tiangong space station on Tuesday. The launch marks a new era in the space race, with China now operating an independent, fully-functional space station.
The three men aboard are among China’s most senior astronauts. Captain Fei Junlong, 57, was the commander on China’s second human spaceflight more than 17 years ago.
The crew is expected to stay in orbit for several months and will return to earth in May after being replaced by a different crew, according to state media.
Chinese officials said they are open to collaboration with other space missions and extended an invitation to foreign astronauts.
China became the world’s third country to conduct a human space flight after launching Shenzhou 5 in 2003. Since then, it has developed a more ambitious and impressive space program that rivals that of the United States, leading some to believe the two countries have entered a new space race.
While Tiangong is significantly smaller than the International Space Station, it features newer technology. According to space news site ZME Science, the crew on Tiangong will perform experiments and collect data that will help China make the leap for human flights to the moon, and potentially Mars.
The launch comes just days after China saw a series of unprecedented anti-lockdown protests in major cities across the country. On heavily-censored Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, there was virtually no mention of political dissent on Tuesday, and instead state-media posts about the Shenzhou launch dominated the network .