China currently has six astronauts in orbit for the first time as the country carries out a space station crew handover.
Three astronauts launched aboard the Shenzhou 15 spacecraft on Tuesday (Nov. 29) and docked with the Tiangong space station 6.5 hours later. Chen Dong, commander of the three-person Shenzhou 14 crew already aboard the newly-completed Tiangong, opened the hatch between the space station and spacecraft at 6:33 p.m. EST (2333 GMT).
Chen and colleagues Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe greeted new arrivals Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu with hugs, marking the first time China has had two crews aboard Tiangong.
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Chinese media described (opens in new tab) the gathering as a “space reunion,” which culminated in the six astronauts posing for a group video during which they said, “China’s space station is always worth looking forward to.”
With seven crewmembers about the International Space Station, the Chinese reunion also means there are briefly 13 astronauts in orbit on two permanently inhabited space stations.
However, the Shenzhou 14 crew won’t be hanging around in orbit much longer. Chen, Liu and Cai are expected to journey home on their Shenzhou 14 spacecraft in the next few days after completing their handover duties. The trio oversaw the arrival of two new modules to Tiangong and embarked on three spacewalks during their six-month-long mission.
The orbital get-together aboard Tiangong also marks the beginning of Tiangong science operations. The country plans to keep Tiangong permanently occupied and operational for at least a decade. China first envisioned a plan to send astronauts to space independently and eventually build a space station back in 1992.
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