China continued its new pattern of space station crew exchanges today with the launch of the three-man Shenzhou-18 crew. They docked with the Tiangong-3 space station 6.5 hours after launch and will replace the Shenzhou-17 crew for what has become routine 6-month stays similar to those on the International Space Station.

The Long March 2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-18 crew lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert at 8:59 am Eastern Daylight Time (8:59 pm local time in China).

Launch of Shenzhou-18 crew to Tiangong-3 space station, April 25, 2024. Credit: Xinhua

They will replace the Shenzhou-17 crew over the next several days. Aboard the flight are Ye Guangfu on his second flight and two rookies, Li Cong and Li Guansu.

Shenzhou-18 crew, L-R: Li Guangsu, Ye Guangfu (commander), Li Cong. Credit: Xinhua

The Chinese crew exchange flights, similar to those conducted on the U.S.-Russian-European-Japanese-Canadian International Space Station for the past 23 years, began two years ago.

The Shenzhou-18 crew joined their Shenzhou-17 colleagues 6.5 hours after launch.

The three astronauts aboard China’s Shenzhou-18 spaceship have entered the country’s space station and met with another astronaut trio on Friday, starting a new round of in-orbit crew handover. #GLOBALink pic.twitter.com/9MQGK0XbK5

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) April 25, 2024

Xinhua reported they will conduct “more than 90 scientific experiments in the fields of basic physics in microgravity, space material science, space life science, space medicine and space technology” including raising zebrafish in a 1.25 liter aquarium.

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