Sen— China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, carrying three astronauts, completed its docking with the Tiangong 1 orbiting space lab on June 18.
Jing Haipeng, the mission commander, led his fellow astronauts Liu Wang and Liu Yang into the "heavenly palace" after a quick and smooth automated docking procedure.
It is the first time Chinese astronauts have entered an orbiter. The historical moment was broadcast live on television.
"Shenzhou 9 crew members feel great!" declared Liu Wang to mission control at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.
The automated docking procedure started with the Shenzhou 9 spaceship at a distance of 52 kilometres. The spacecraft slowly approached the Tiangong lab module before making contact at 2.07pm Chinese local time. The docking process took less than eight minutes.
Screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center during the docking procedure. Credit: Xinhua
Tiangong 1 and the attached Shenzhou 9 craft are orbiting Earth at approximately 28,000 km per hour.
Nine humans now orbit Earth aboard two space laboratories.
In about 6 days the astronauts will separate the Shenzhou 9 craft from the space lab and attempt a manual docking. Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's manned space program, said "A manual docking, if successful, will demonstrate the country's grasp of essential space rendezvous and docking know-how. It will mean China is fully capable of transferring human and cargo to an orbiter in space."
During their two week stay aboard Tiangong 1 the three astronauts will conduct medical experiments and other tests.
Tiangong 1 was launched in September 2011, and within a month of being placed in orbit it was joined by the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft. The current mission is the first time crew has boarded the space lab.
Tiangong 1 is a 10.5 metre long cylindrical shape module that weighs 8.5 tonnes and has been orbiting Earth for 262 days.
China plans to develop Tiangong into a space station over the next few years - the ability to launch crew and cargo to the orbiter is therefore a key technological milestone in the process.
China outlined its key plans for space in a paper published in December 2011. The plans include developing new Long March rockets and developing BeiDou, the Chinese version of GPS. A new launch site, Hainan, is currently under construction and will compliment the Jiuquan spaceport in the Gobi Desert, used to launch the current mission.
China also annouced, in two sections of the paper entitled Human spaceflight and Deep-space exploration, that “China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.
The Deep Space Exploration section of the paper states that “China will conduct special project demonstration in deep-space exploration, and push forward its exploration of planets, asteroids and the sun of the solar system”.