Three Chinese astronauts arrived at China’s new space station on Thursday at the start of a three-month mission, marking another milestone in the country’s ambitious space program.

His Shenzhou-12 craft attached to the space station module about six hours after takeoff from Jiuquan Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

About three hours later, Commander Ni Haisheng, 56, Liu Boming, 54, and space rookie Tang Hongbo, 45, opened the hatch and floated to the Tianhe-1 Corps Living Module. The pictures showed him busy working on opening the equipment.

“This represents the first time China has entered its space station,” state broadcaster CCTV said in its nightly newscast.

The crew will conduct experiments, test equipment, maintain and prepare the station for receiving two laboratory modules next year. The mission brings the number of astronauts to 14 that China has launched into space since 2003, becoming only the third country to do so after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Everything seems to have gone smoothly so far. Chinese leaders expect the mission to be a complete success as the ruling Communist Party prepares to celebrate the centenary of its founding next month.

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Astronauts were seen by a crowd of space officers, other uniformed military personnel and children waving flowers and flags and singing patriotic songs at 9:22 a.m. (0122 GMT) atop a Long March-2F Y12 rocket.

The rocket dropped its booster about two minutes into flight and then cowled around Shenzhou-12. After about 10 minutes it detached from the upper part of the rocket, expanded its solar panels and entered orbit shortly after.

It took about a half-dozen adjustments over the next six hours to line up the spacecraft for docking with the Tianhe-1, or Heavenly Harmony, module at around 4 a.m. (0800 GMT).

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The mission’s deputy chief designer Gao Xu told state broadcaster CCTV that the travel time is less than the two days it would take to reach China’s earlier experimental space stations, the result of “a lot of breakthroughs and innovations”.

“So astronauts can have a good rest in space, which can make them less fatigued,” Gao said.

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Other improvements include an increase in the number of automated and remote-controlled systems that “should significantly reduce the pressure on astronauts,” Gao said.