China has launched its first crewed mission in five years, sending three people to its new space station.
The astronauts are travelling in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship which was launched by a Long March-2F Y12 rocket.
They blasted off at 2.22am UK time from the launch centre on the edge of the Gobi Desert in the north of China.
There to see them off were the commander of China’s manned space programme, military personnel and children waving flags and singing patriotic songs.
The trio – Nie Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and Tang Hongbo, 45 – waved as they entered the elevator which took them to the spaceship.
They will spend three months at the space station module Tianhe (Heavenly Harmony), carrying out experiments, testing equipment, conducting maintenance and preparing the site for future visits.
Mr Nie is a veteran and said: “This will be the first crewed flight in the space station (construction) phase, and I’m lucky to be able to have the ‘first baton’.
Mr Liu is also experienced – having been selected for China’s space programme in the 1990s – and Mr Tang is a former air force pilot on his first space flight.
Mr Tang said: “I’ve waited for 11 years, and finally I’m ready, and I can contribute my strength.”
During their time on the Tianhe, which is slightly bigger than a bus, the men will also be monitored for how they handle the time in space – physically and psychologically.
Fourteen Chinese astronauts have now travelled into space since the country launched its first crewed mission in 2003.
China is not involved in the International Space Station, mainly because the US objected to the secrecy of its space programme and its close ties to the country’s military.
But China has been increasingly working with Russia and some other countries and its space station may actually outlast the ISS, which is near the end of its functional life.
China plans 11 missions to the Tianhe over the coming year to continue building the station and keep it supplied.
The rocket used by the astronauts on Thursday is a different type to the one that carried the Tianhe into space and then controversially made an uncontrolled re-entry to earth.
Any parts that re-enter the earth’s atmosphere are expected to burn up long before they could be dangerous, according to Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency.