Shenzhou-11 docked with China's second space lab early on Wednesday morning
Astronauts will perform scientific and medical tests during their month-long mission
Hundreds of miles above Earth, two astronauts on board China’s Shenzhou-11 spacecraft have successfully docked with the country’s new space lab, Tiangong-2.
Planned to be China’s longest-ever crewed space mission, Shenzhou-11 launched from the Gobi Desert on Monday, local time, with astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong on board.
They successfully docked at 3.31 a.m. Beijing time (3.31 p.m ET) Wednesday, while in orbit approximately 224 miles (393 kilometers) above Earth.
The astronauts will stay on the lab for 33 days in total, to conduct experiments related to medicine, physics and biology.
The Tiangong-2 lab, whose name translates as “heavenly vessel,” had been unmanned since it was launched on September 15.
It replaces China’s previous structure, Tiangong-1, which they may have lost control of earlier in 2016.
First Chinese space station planned
China's space ambitions
Both space lab and astronauts are part of China’s slow progress towards its eventual goal – the launch of the first Chinese space station.
China is planning to launch the permanent 20-ton space station before 2024, when the International Space Station (ISS) is retired, according to state news agency Xinhua.
“Tiangong is a precursor testbed of capabilities, building toward the large space station has always been the culminating goal of the Shenzhou program,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College specializing in space programs and space security.
Shenzhou-11 is China’s first manned space mission since 2013, and is indicative of the country’s huge ongoing push into the space race.
Since its first satellite launch in 1970, China has spent huge amounts of money and resources in resources and training and has elaborate space plans going forward, including sending a robotic probe to Mars and a potential manned mission to the moon.