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A Chinese rocket has just blasted off to begin the nation’s longest manned mission to date

Highlights of Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft launch
China has successfully launched its Long March-2F rocket, marking the start of what will become its longest manned mission yet.

The rocket left the launchpad in northern China on Monday morning local time, taking two astronauts on a two-day journey aboard the Shenzhou-11 module to China’s Tiangong-2 space station, which went into operation last month. The pair will stay on board the station for the next 30 days.

The voyage, which is China’s first crewed mission in three years and only its sixth in total, will break the record for the longest amount of time any of its astronauts have spent in space.

China is spending huge amounts on its rapidly expanding space program, with this latest mission a major step toward the deployment of a much larger space station set to begin operation some time in the 2020s. It also has plans to become the first country to land a probe on the dark side of the moon, and aims to send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2020, an ambition shared with Elon Musk and his SpaceX team.

And it doesn’t stop there.

The Asian nation is also developing a hypersonic space plane, while just last month it put into operation the world’s largest radio telescope designed to detect radio signals from billions of light years away. Its technology will also enable it to spot new galaxies, extrasolar planets, and highly magnetic neutron stars that could help scientists learn more about the evolution of our universe.

China’s space-based ambitions have certainly been noted by U.S. officials, with a March 2015 congressional report claiming that the country is aiming “to become militarily, diplomatically, commercially, and economically as competitive as the U.S. is in space.”

Pointing to China’s recent advancements, Republican Lamar Smith, who chairs the House committee on science, space and technology, said last month that the U.S. should not resign itself “to the remembrance of past achievements,” adding that it was time for America to “reassert its leadership [in space].”

As for China’s current mission, the two astronauts – Jing Haipeng, 49, Chen Dong, 37 – will be carrying out ultrasound measurement experiments, tests for cultivating plants in space, and also orbital repair experiments. It’ll also try out a range of processes and functions in connection with the launch of the station’s core module in the next couple of years.

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